Single sex education: good or bad?
About 15 years ago I attended a lecture by an educational psychologist who argued, strongly, that in order to maximize educational advantage and improve young people’s constructive contributions to society all boys should be educated in co-educational schools, and all girls in single sex institutions. Boys taught in all-male environments were, we were told, often not well adjusted and were educational under-performers, while girls attending all-female schools worked better, were less distracted and reached their full potential more quickly and securely. He concluded that the paradox had to be resolved in favour of single sex education, because the benefit for girls outweighed the risks for boys.
Single sex education at university level is more or less a thing of the past in western countries, but single sex secondary schools are still often seen as worthwhile. Even in liberal circles that would not countenance education segregated on any other grounds, single sex schools are often seen as good and educationally superior. But is this justified?
A recent report written by eight psychologists and neuroscientists and published in Science magazine (and reported on in the New York Times) dismisses the idea that single sex schooling has any advantages, arguing that there is no ‘valid scientific evidence’ to back it. Apart from having no pedagogical benefits, it produces and reinforces gender stereotypes in both girls and boys. The authors also stress that there is no evidence that boys and girls learn differently.
Perhaps we should apply the same liberal instinct to education that many of us would have in relation to all other areas of life: that treating people differently because of their gender is wrong, even where we think it is for their benefit. Perhaps it is time to conclude that single sex education, like single sex employment, is not justifiable.