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Co-ed vs Single Sex Education – which is best?


Why Single Sex is best

Harrow school Headmaster, Barnaby Lenon, espouses the academic benefits and freedom that comes with a single-sex education

Some less popular boys’ schools have, in recent years, been forced to take girls because there was insufficient demand from boys of a good enough standard to maintain a respectable position in exam league tables. Having taken girls, it is quite understandable that they will justify this decision in terms of the supposed merits of co-education.

I would do the same thing if I ran a school which needed to take girls in order to survive. But never think that co-education was something that these schools’ parents wanted or supported. Single-sex schools have a huge problem – they have half the number of potential applicants as the co-ed schools. So they are going to find it harder to fill their places and you would expect them to be less selective and less successful academically. In fact, however, they dominate the league tables.

How can this be?

There are not many single-sex schools in the state sector but in the top 20 of the exam league tables, 12 are single sex. Most independent schools are co-ed but of the top 20 in the league tables, two are co-ed. I am sure that not all co-ed schools are popular, but many well-known co-ed schools are very popular.

So why do their pupils not do better in exams?

Because, as every teacher knows, teenage boys and girls learn in different ways and need to be taught in different ways. Brain research, much of it linked in the past five years to MRI scanning, has shown that the left hemisphere of the brain is clearly specialised for language functions in men, while women use both sides of their brains for language. Also, while men’s brains contain large amounts of protein coded with the Y chromosome, women’s brains are rich in material coded with the X chromosome. This chromosome affects how the brain develops – i.e. differently.

The brains of girls develop quicker than the brains of boys. Girls are fully mature by the age of 22, boys by the age of 30, and the differences between the brains of girls and boys is greatest when they are 15. Boys like competition and find it motivating, even if they lose. They do not mind competing with their friends. In fact competition, such as on the sports field, creates friendships. Girls do not like competing against their friends. Girls like to express their feelings, boys do not. Boys systematically overestimate their ability, girls underestimate their ability. Girl friendships are about being together, spending time together, talking together. Boy friendships more usually develop out of a shared interest and involve little talking.

In a recent survey, ‘reading a good book’ was listed as a ‘preferred activity’ by 43 per cent of girls and 17 per cent of boys. Girls also work harder. These differences, which will be familiar to parents with both sons and daughters, have implications for teaching and learning.

Boys prefer teachers with loud voices, girls prefer a teacher with a soft voice. Girls are concerned about having a good relationship with their teacher and are adversely affected if they ‘don’t like’ the teacher. Boys are less concerned. Girls are more likely to do homework in order to please the teacher, *boys do not do this! Girls are more likely to ask for help, boys will only do so as a last resort. Boys like hierarchies, so to be successful with boys, a teacher has to establish the fact that he or she is at the top of the hierarchy. Boys like drills more than girls. Boys are more likely to take risks and need to be protected from their inability to judge the consequences of taking such risks. Boys are less interested in literature which requires them to think about feelings. Girls prefer fiction, boys prefer non-fiction. Girls prefer characters, boys prefer books about action. Because they underestimate their abilities, girls need to be encouraged. Boys need to be pushed to understand that they can do better. Boys respond best to clear rules, clear deadlines and punishments. Girls respond best to explanations based on feelings.

Because girls mature earlier than boys and have better work habits, boys tend to be outclassed by girls in co-ed schools. Teenage boys have fragile selfesteem and they give up the struggle to compete by withdrawing. Co-ed schools tend to reinforce gender stereotypes because in co-ed schools, girls behave in the way they think girls should behave and boys behave in the way they think boys should behave. In co-ed schools, girls are less likely to opt to study physics; boys are less likely to opt for modern languages or literature. In co-ed schools, girls are much less likely to play the trumpet, boys are less likely to play the flute.

A recent survey conducted by the Girls’ Schools Association shows that, compared to all girls nationally, in GSA schools over 70 per cent more girls took A-level Maths, over 50 per cent more girls chose a science at A-level and over 90 per cent more girls took a physical science (Physics or Chemistry) at A-level. Boys in co-ed schools do not choose English because it is seen to be a girls’ subject.

So the presence of the opposite sex is influencing subject choice. In co-educational schools, boys find it hard to compete with girls in cultural activities such as music. An average musical boy at a boys’ school is much more likely to be in the orchestra than he would be at a co-educational school.

It is sometimes argued that it is ‘unnatural’ to segregate the sexes in education. In fact, there is nothing natural or normal about putting hundreds of adolescent girls and boys together, particularly in a boarding school. My colleagues in co-educational schools have to deal with a spectrum of disciplinary and emotional problems arising from their co-educational status and this is a distraction from the main purpose of a school.

Teenagers can do without the pressures of living alongside members of the opposite sex at a time in their lives of physical change and emotional vulnerability. I am pleased to be the head of a boys’ school. And, unlike the schools where boys have to sit opposite their girlfriend at breakfast every day, where they are competing for the attention of girls and thinking too much about their image, in a boys’ school, boys can still be boys.

Why Co-ed is best

Dr Chris Greenhalgh, Deputy Head Teaching and Learning of Sevenoaks School in Kent, explains why a co-ed school prepares pupils for real life

Three myths peddled by the single-sex lobby need to be dispelled. Firstly, that pupils perform better academically at single-sex schools. Secondly, that girls and boys enjoy different learning styles. Thirdly, that cultural factors make single-sex environments more conducive to learning.

In the UK, girls’ schools top the league tables, seeming to give legitimacy to the theory that girls, at least, perform better academically in a single-sex environment. Statistics are regularly cited from exam results that appear to prove this.

In 2006, however, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) which represents the heads of over 250 of the leading independent schools in the UK, commissioned a study that looked at academic performance in single-sex and co-ed schools across the globe, including Australia, the US, Europe and the UK. The study – the most comprehensive of its kind – concluded that “half a century of research has so far revealed no striking or consistent advantages for single-sex education.”

Professor Alan Smithers, who led the study, said, “The reason people think single-sex schools are better is because they do well in league tables. But [these schools] are generally independent, grammar or former grammar schools and they do well because of the ability and social background of the pupils… not because they are single sex.”

A US Department of Education study in 2005 also concluded there was “no evidence” to suggest pupils in singlesex schools perform better than those in a co-ed. While girls on average will always tend to achieve more highly than boys, they achieve just as highly in co-ed schools. Professor Smithers did find, though, that “40 per cent of people who had a single-sex education wanted their own children to go to a co-ed school.”

The second commonly held belief is that boys and girls have different preferred learning styles. A 2005 study by the Department of Children, Schools and Families concluded that there was “little evidence to support the notion that the dominant learning style of boys differs from those of girls.” To identify exclusively girl-centred or boy-centred learning strategies is therefore meaningless. The study also concluded that ways of teaching that appeal to boys are equally girlfriendly, in that “they characterise quality teaching, and as such are just as suitable and desirable for girls as for boys.”

Factors that have the biggest impact on learning – as proved by Professor John Hattie in his analysis of 180,000 studies involving 50 million pupils worldwide – include quality of teaching, feedback, thinking skills and home encouragement, but not separation by gender.

Many claims have been made about the culture of single-sex schools. It is said they provide a gentler environment where pupils can grow at their own pace and ‘find themselves’. But these environments can also be unforgivingly bitchy or brutal compared to the civilising influence of co-ed schools. Young people ‘find themselves’ not by navel-gazing but in relation to others, so it is hard to see how they can achieve this if half the population remains unrepresented in their daily lives. Some contend that pupils will be distracted by the opposite sex in co-ed schools. Of course they will, but this is an essential and formative part of growing up.

Single-sex schooling seems based on an unspoken fear of the opposite sex – fear of otherness, of difference. Think of Harry Potter and Hermione – they may distract each other, but there’s little doubt that they are enriched and grow emotionally more mature in each other’s company. In co-ed schools, girls and boys learn to be friends, to work and play together, and feel more comfortable with each other as a result. Contrary to popular opinion they are also less obsessed with self-image than they might be in the cloistered environment of a singlesex school. Adolescent girls often seem to care more about what other girls think of them and the same goes for boys.

Single-sex school advocates argue that pupils in their schools are more likely to take risks with non-traditional male and female subjects, but are boys really more likely to pursue ballet in a boys’ school? And will peer pressure lessen among girls opting for design?

With positive role models of both genders on the staff, students can be inspired to do anything. And with an enlightened curriculum like the International Baccalaureate (IB), where all pupils must pursue arts and sciences, this becomes a non-issue.

A common claim is that pupils feel more inhibited in a co-ed setting, but all good schools enjoy a strong framework of pastoral care, and together with a culture that counters laddishness and sets clear boundaries, there’s no reason why girls and boys should feel inhibited in each other’s presence.

Finally, what about the suggestion that pupils will be less successful in sport at a co-ed school?

In fact, there will almost certainly be a greater variety of sports at a co-ed school. The A-teams will most likely compete with the best, though obviously they might not enjoy the same strength in depth – this is a question of numbers of girls and boys available, not quality – but then only between 11 and 15 players comprise a first team anyway, so there are always limits on participation at the top level, whichever school you choose.

It is important to remember that the point of education is to prepare students for university, work and life. In each of these, teamwork, emotional intelligence, mutual understanding and the ability to relate to others is crucial. These skills are better fostered in a co-ed environment that mirrors the conditions of real life.

Independent schools are already refined and exclusive places, socially determined by intelligence and the ability to pay fees. To further exclude students on the basis of gender seems archaic, even discriminatory, and a poor introduction to the world. Single-sex schooling enjoys a long and honourable tradition, but is a legacy of a time when men and women enjoyed vastly different rights and expectations.

Now those expectations are similar, doesn’t it make sense to educate boys and girls together?

The Armed Forces, the judiciary, even the Anglican Church have seen the light. Parents should have the option, of course, and in many ways this is a lifestyle choice. But if we want our students to be leaders in an interconnected world, they need to realise that, while we might comprise two genders, we are still one species and must learn to work together. The sooner students embrace this fact; the more likely it is they will enjoy success in work as well as emotional wellbeing and happiness in life.


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