Prospective parents enjoy quizzing heads. Some quizzes can feel like forensic cross examinations, and one popular line of enquiry is the advantages and disadvantages of co-education.
The topic is an emotive one. Some parents feel that in a single sex environment their children will receive more focused gender specific teaching free from the distractions of the opposite sex. Other parents will see single sex schooling as a throwback to the Victorian era, and a limiting factor on the development of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. How can children learn team work and empathy if they are only educated with pupils of the same gender?
The co-ed versus single sex debate touches raw nerves. Most boys schools were founded in a time when the education of girls was not a priority. It was the social norm in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for all schools to be boys schools. Many girls schools were founded in the nineteenth century to correct this injustice, and thus the girls school movement is rightly recognised as a progressive social force. Moves to co-education which threaten the existence of such pioneers of gender equality are bound to be contentious.
Moving from history to psychology, there is the long running debate about whether men are from Mars and women are from Venus. How different are the male and female brains? If there are significant differences do they diverge or converge with increasing age? Do girls and boys learn in different ways, and therefore benefit from segregated schooling? Or if girls and boys do learn differently do they benefit from being educated together so that they better understand how the other sex thinks and works? Is the development of emotional intelligence compromised by single sex education?
Segregation by gender has rightly disappeared from most walks of life. The era of the male only golf club is over, yet in a country where we oppose segregation on virtually any grounds, we permit it in our schools and exempt them from sex discrimination laws. Is gender apartheid acceptable?
The truth is that while the co-ed vs. single sex debate excites interest, it has little impact on individual pupils or school achievement. The most definitive survey of the effect of single sex and co-education on academic attainment – the Smithers report – found no effect. Put simply schools are good or bad for reasons other than their gender composition. Excellent teaching, good school management, and a positive peer group culture have a big impact on academic achievement, whether classes are mixed or not does not.
Those who support single sex education cite league tables as evidence that single sex education is more effective. The upper levels of academic league tables contain many single sex schools, but their success is down to the selectivity of their intake and the quality of their teaching. Schools that have made the transition to co-education have not seen any decline in academic performance; indeed nearly all have seen results improve. This is to be expected. The move to co-education doubles a school’s market, and increases the pool of applicants and hence the raw talent it can admit. Increasing market size also means improved pupil recruitment, and a full school brings economic benefits such as more investment in facilities and increased spending to recruit, retain, and develop high quality staff.
There may be differences between the male and female brains, but if there are distinct male and female normal distribution curves there is much overlap. Gender stereotypes excite media interest and sell books, but rather than educate a gender stereotype good teachers personalise learning to the needs of individual students. Moreover, if grouping students by any characteristic makes sense then that characteristic is academic ability. Streaming or setting children by ability ensures that teachers have a narrower range to teach to. This means that individual pupils are more likely to have their learning needs met, and the risks of some children getting bored or others feeling overwhelmed are reduced.
While the gender composition of a school has no discernible impact on academic achievement, it may have an effect on interpersonal development. I have taught in single sex and co-ed schools, and it is in the latter that pupils are more likely to be well rounded and at ease with themselves and each other. In co-ed schools the boorishness of some boys and the ‘cattiness’ of some girls is toned down by the opposite sex. Male chauvinism can survive in all boys schools without bright girls to bring arrogant males down to earth. In all girl environments there can be an unhealthy focus on appearance which boys, by not noticing the finer points of dress and make up, moderate.
The gender composition of a school does not affect the academic achievement of its pupils but it may influence their social development.