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Should you go for Single-sex Schools?

For many parents, single-sex education is the only option and there are those who say it leads to better results
"It’s not like when I was at an all-boys school and knew almost no women or girls. When I went to university and met girls for the first time socially I had no idea what to do"

I had an unusual – some might say bizarre – school experience. I spent two years at a school that catered almost entirely for boys and took just a few girls – I think the most at any one time was 10 out of about 120 pupils – after which I was sent to a girls’ boarding school. I fared academically well but socially appallingly in the first, while my experience in the second was moderate on both counts.

My education was a few years – decades – back and I suspect that life in single sex-schools is a very different experience these days. For many parents, single-sex education is the only option and there are those who say it leads to better results, particularly among girls.

The Girls’ Day Schools Trust (GDST) claims that their pupils – all at girls-only schools – outperform not just the general population of schools, but even the rest of the independent sector. Meanwhile research on behalf of The Good School’s Guide found that girls who sat GCSEs in single-sex schools over the period 2005-7, on average all did better than predicted on the basis of their end of primary Sats results. By comparison, 20 per cent of those who took exams in mixed-sex schools did worse than expected, and these results were particularly marked among the lowest ten per cent of achievers. Those who started a girls-only secondary school behind with their work were far more likely to get GCSEs and then A-levels than their struggling co-educated peers.

Sobering words for those of us whose girls study alongside boys, though others would argue that the results could be in part to do with the fact that it is educationally aspirant parents who tend to choose girls-only schools, which could also make a difference. Our aspirations for our children are believed to have a significant impact on their educational success or otherwise. Also, of the few single-sex state schools that exist, most are grammar or former grammar schools and selective, and children in poorer neighbourhoods are unlikely to attend them. The link between poverty and lack of educational achievement is well documented.

What then about boys? Here in the UK, boys-only schools turn out fantastic results year after year, but again they are almost all private, attracting pupils from a particular socio-economic background and/or with highly aspirational parents. A piece of research from New Zealand, published in June this year, suggests that boys educated in single-sex schools do better than those in co-educational ones, including boys from lower socio-economic groups, though this contradicts earlier research from the country.

There are those who argue that this success is not just about aspiration and socio-economic background but that in general boys and girls learn differently. Though this is mired in controversy, some teachers have found it to be the case. One such is Diana Moule who has taught maths in both single-sex and co-ed schools. “I have found that there are learning styles that are more suited to one gender than another. If I teach a lesson based around football it will generally be boys who sit up and pay attention, whereas if I ask a class to design a poster about what they have been learning, the girls will usually be keener to do it and will plan and think through the maths as they design the poster. Most of the boys will just dash something off.”

Her own three children have all been educated in single-sex schools in Bedford, though initially this was more to do with logistics than with ideology. However she says “it has turned out to be really good for them. When Ben (now just entering sixth form) was younger he was in to things like creative writing that I think in a mixed school would have been considered more suitable for girls and he would have given them up, but in an all-boys school he was happy to carry them on. As for my girls it has worked well because they have twice as many people to choose their friends from. We have just moved areas and my youngest daughter has chosen to go to another all-girls school because she feels it suits her.”

Sixteen-year-old Rachel agrees. She has just completed her GCSEs at Guildford High School and intends to stay on for the sixth form. “I think there are better friendship bonds,” she says. “I also think that being with all girls helps me concentrate better and we are encouraged to do whatever we want academically and when thinking about careers. If we want to go into parliament, into business, whatever, that is fine and the school supports us.”

Close by at the all-male Royal Grammar School boys find the same. “Boys do all the things that might be considered girly in a mixed school like music and drama,” said one father. “They don’t feel so self-conscious about doing these things as they might elsewhere and they tend to stay committed to them. Also, there are plenty of female teachers and opportunities to mix with girls as the local schools do things together. It’s not like when I was at an all-boys school and knew almost no women or girls. When I went to university and met girls for the first time socially I had no idea what to do. I was so naïve.”

The same parent however, plans to educate his youngest child – a girl – in co-ed private schools. “Rightly or wrongly we get the impression that all-girls schools can be cliquey and a bit strange without the leavening effect of boys.”

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Henry thinks that girls might have a good leavening effect on his all-boys school. “There’s quite a hierarchy and it can be a bit dog-eat-dog with people wanting to be at the top which is probably what happens when you get all boys together.”

There remains the question of whether being in a single-sex school saves you from the ‘distractions’ of the opposite sex, but as Diana Moule says “if you want to spend your time worrying about a boy or girlfriend rather than working you can do that in a single-sex school just as well as in a co-ed one. I don’t think it is a particular problem in mixed schools. What I have noticed more talking to parents is that they usually choose a school because it has a particular strength which will suit it to their own child.”

That, of course, is key. All the generalisations in the world mean nothing when faced with the fact that our children are individuals and a school that will suit one child will do little for another and we can make choices accordingly. Not everyone is in that fortunate position. The school playing field is not level.

- Stella Wiseman