For many parents, deciding whether to send their child to a single sex or co-educational school is one of the most important, and most challenging, choices that they have to make. The topic is often very emotive for parents, and it’s easy to have strong opinions; some may think that single sex environments are the perfect opportunity for students to focus on learning without the distractions of the opposite sex, whilst others may view them as a throwback to Victorian-style segregation and out of touch with the real world. Given that gender is one of the most politicised topics of our times, it is unsurprising that parents can feel passionate about the pros and cons of each, but it’s important to keep an open mind as there are many factors to consider when choosing a school.
Benefits of single sex schools
A customised approach to teaching and learning
Research proves that boys and girls, particularly when they are younger, learn in very different ways. For example, in girls, the language areas of the brain develop earlier, while in boys the visual-spatial areas of the brain develop first. Many schools capitalise on these differences in order to make learning as engaging as possible. At Moulsford Boys the curriculum is as practical, collaborative and kinaesthetic as possible, with games like Kung Fu Punctuation, vocabulary treasure hunts and spelling relays. Likewise at Falcons Schools for Girls, staff work with organisations such as Girls on Board to specifically support and engage female pupils.
Less risk of stereotyping
At single-sex schools there is less likely to be gender bias around certain subjects. For example, at Queenswood School for Girls, Maths is the most popular A-Level subject, whilst research suggests that girls from single sex schools are almost 2.5 times more likely to study Physics post-GCSE. Furthermore students are likely to be less self-conscious and this gives them more freedom, benefitting quieter girls who might be intimidated by boys who dominate class discussion, or boys interested in performing arts, a more stereotypically ‘female’ activity.
Single sex schools tend to dominate league tables – in the top 10 schools by GCSE results in 2019, every single one is a single sex school. Single sex schools tend to be more academically selective, and research suggests that girls in particular tend to perform better academically at single sex schools – Caroline Jordan, President of the Girls’ School Association, suggests that this is because “Girls can be more confident in themselves, they don’t have to become a particular type of girl, and they’re able to relax more.”
Benefits of co-educational schools
Better preparation for real life
Many people argue that co-ed schools better provide students for life after school, as they more closely replicate the reality of the world in which men and women work together. Whilst many single sex schools do host events with local partner schools, the number of interactions a student has with the opposite sex will vary from family to family, and the odd school disco or sports day is obviously no replacement for the day-to-day experiences you share at a co-ed school.
There are far fewer single sex schools to choose from; only 12% of state schools are single sex (although 74% of grammar schools are single sex), and in the independent sector only 12% of schools are girls only and less than 10% are boys only. There is also increasing pressure on many single sex schools (particularly boys schools) to go co-educational. From 2024 there will only be three private schools in the country – Eton College, Radley College and Harrow School – that operate solely as all boys’ boarding schools, as Winchester College is now admitting girls at Sixth Form.
Many people would argue that segregating girls and boys can result in them ‘othering’ the opposite sex, and having preconceived opinions that go unchallenged because they are not allowed the opportunity to discuss and debate with each other. During the Everyone’s Invited scandal, many of the schools with the worst allegations were single sex (for example, Dulwich College and King’s College Wimbledon) and some parents may be concerned about these accusations and feel that they want to send their children to a school that offers more diversity.
Whatever parents may think about this debate, it’s important to remember that single sex vs co-ed is not the be all and end all. The Smithers Report found that the gender composition of a school had little impact on academic attainment, and that other factors, such as excellent teaching, good school management and a positive peer group culture, were far more important in determining student progress.
Many single sex schools are also increasingly making efforts to modernise and ensure integration. At Whitgift School for example, there are plenty of female role models – almost half the staff are female, 2 members of the senior leadership team are female, and they are making an active effort to recruit more female PE teachers, whilst all boys schools such as St Paul’s and Magdalen College School now have female headteachers.
An increasing number of schools are also offering a diamond structure. For example, at New Hall School, boys and girls are taught together in Primary, then separately between 11-16, and then back together for Sixth Form. These schools claim to offer the best of both as they combine the academic benefits of single sex education with the social and cultural advantages of co-educational education, and it’s hard to disagree.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that decisions are not permanent. Students can go to different types of schools for different stages of their education. For example, many students who go to Falcon School for Girls for junior school then go on to a variety of co-educational senior schools, such as Ibstock Place School, Emanuel School and St John’s Leatherhead, and they are just as successful there as if they had been to a mixed junior school. Likewise a single sex school may be appropriate for KS3 and GCSE but co-ed may be better for Sixth Form. At the end of the day, it’s about knowing your child and what is best for their individual ability, interests and personality.
About the author: Kristina Murkett is a teacher and a freelance writer specialising in education, film, literature and women’s rights.