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.

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4 Comments on “Single sex education: good or bad?”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Thinking about this based purely on personal experience, I would be inclined to agree that single-sex education isn’t that important in determining success.

    I attended co-educational schools from 5-18; this included a very good primary school, a very bad secondary school and then a better secondary school (all state schools). What made those schools good or bad certainly had nothing to do with their co-ed status. What I do remember is that in the early years of secondary school, for the ages 11-15, the exam results for all subjects showed the top half of the class was almost entirely female, the bottom half almost entirely male. After the age of 15, this seemed to even out; all of which is in line with received wisdom about the differences between boys’ and girls’ patterns of growing up/maturity/achievement.

    The other thing I remember though is how much voluntary segregation there was up until at least 16. In a class of 30 kids, half boys and half girls, boys and girls never sat next to each other, never played or talked to each other on breaks and never described each other as ‘friends’. Once we were old enough to be interested in the opposite sex, it was never, ever someone in your own class, but only boys in a higher year/girls in a lower year. What fascinates me is where this ruthlessly-policed segregation came from, given that all of us had had classmates of the opposite sex from the age of 5 – clearly from messages learned from wider society.

  2. Vincent Says:

    How the dickens can you measure this objectively. It’s not as if you can un-hear the ringed bell is it.

  3. I was at a single-sex (boys) school from 15-18. I ended up socially stunted and educationally damaged: there was certainly a macho culture of not trying with certain subjects – ones I enjoyed – so that potential could never be reached. I’m not sure I’d have tried harder to impress girls, but I suspect female role-models would have helped.

  4. John Hurley Says:

    One of the problems with any statistics is the story behind the numbers. I’ve worked in 9 different secondary schools: all-male; all-female & co-ed.
    I’ve found that the underlying ethos of the school has a huge impact on the expectations of the students, and hence their academic achievement.
    Likewise, the culture from which the students originate also plays a huge part. Sometimes in opposition to the official school ethos. For example, where education is not valued, or disaffection with authority is the norm.
    So, it’s not as simple a question as whether single sex or mixed schools are better for education.

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