Behind Enemy Lines

9th September 2011

Clare Finney weighs up the pros and cons of single sex schooling vs co-education…

Let’s face it: whoever coined the phrase 'school days are the best days of your life' clearly never attended school. Hormones, growing pains, peer pressure and the very existence of the opposite sex make for a life that, for all its absence of serious responsibility, is pockmarked by bad moods and anxiety. 'Does he (or she) like me?' is the question lurking at the front of every teenage mind, easily eclipsing any intellectual curiosity about algebra and photosynthesis. While in the past the response of many a school was to split the sexes and have done with it, the evidence supporting the separate education of boys and girls is by no means conclusive.

At least, not all of the evidence. Leaving health, well-being and socialisation aside, when it comes to academic success the results of many years worth of research do suggest that segregated is best. “Psychological science has advanced enormously in recent years,” Dr Trevor Nunn, headmaster of the all-boys Northwood Prep School points out. “In the past, the only way we could have known for certain that boys and girls learned in different ways would have been to dissect children’s brains – a sensitive move, to say the least. Now we have psychoanalysis, MRI scans and suchlike, we know that the different sexes do have quite different approaches to learning.”

In short, what the founders of Northwood Prep School intuited a hundred years ago, modern science has proved absolutely correct: when it comes to teaching, boys and girls pose quite different challenges. While boys have a trial-and-error, experiential learning style rooted in confidence and interest in the manipulation of objects, girls tend to have a language-centered, sequential learning style, that is rooted in an interest in people. Single sex schooling allows teachers to accommodate these crucial differences – and that, generally speaking, means better grades.

So far, so sensible – and, as far as the examinations go, so statistically correct. In last year’s league table of the top 50 schools, 27 were girls only, 14 were boys only and nine were mixed. Look past the string of A-levels and GCSEs, however, and you’ll find that life without the other can prove complicated.

Take, for example, Emma, a smart and popular PR manager and one-time pupil at single sex St Helen’s School in Northwood. When she left it was with straight As and a CV pulsating with extra-curricular activities. Yet when I asked Emma to reflect on her time at school I found that her fond memories did not come without qualifications.

“I'd say that single sex schooling, mixed with being an only child, made me quite self-conscious,” she confides. “It took going to university to balance me out, increase my confidence – and make me realise that I could be normal and be myself.” While Emma acknowledges that there were benefits involved – “I don't think I was mature enough to get my head down at school, even at St Helens, and I can imagine it would have been worse in a mixed school” – the same immaturity that made private education an academic help proved a hindrance when it finally came to the boys.

“I was obsessed,” she admits – a sentiment that sits strangely at odds with the familiar refrain ‘single sex offers fewer distractions’. What’s more, she is not alone. Single sex students from both camps insist they spent much of their teenagehood trying and failing to understand each other, for while curiosity about the opposite sex is natural enough at this age, their limited opportunities to satisfy it were not.
“When you don’t work together you end up only meeting in charged situations” explains Tom, a former pupil of the all-boy counterpart of St Helen’s, Merchant Taylors’. “You’re bound to see each other differently.” Instead of maths and geography, it’s house parties or, worse, Pinner Park and the toxic combination of hormones and alco-pops. As far as grades are concerned there’s no harm done; both St Helen’s and Merchant Taylors deliver results that any student (or parent) would give their eye teeth for. Yet when I describe to a former co-ed pupil the strained situations under which these separately-educated teenagers socialised, she was astonished.

“When boys are in your maths class, you know that while they’re strangely compelling idiots who make crude jokes, they’re also maths-learners, like you are,” she explains. Boys and girls do distract each other, but by being classmates she says both sexes are able to dissociate hormonal behavior from the person. “We’re all ultimately human – even if half-way through studying vectors the boys break off to have a joke about knickers. You need to understand that part of boys, and know it’s nothing personal – just as they need to understand you. That’s life.”

Knicker jokes aside, it is this broader view of an education being ‘for life’ that raises the most questions when it comes to co-education. In December 2009, the London University Institute of Education published research claiming that boys taught in single sex schools are more prone to divorce. “Boys taught in male-only schools face divorce and depression by their early 40s,” ran the report, fuelling claims from educational psychologists that boys who are brought up in a single-sex environment are less able to relate to the opposite sex.

Ten months later the Independent Schools Association retaliated – ‘Boys held back in mixed schools’ – after finding growing numbers of young boys being placed in single-sex education. Their research found that parents saw these schools as places that allowed boys to succeed academically and be rounded and caring, without anybody at any point saying “you’re soft” – a better outcome than being “half a boy in some other environment where you have to pretend to be tough or not want to learn because it’s cool to be a fool,” says David Hanson, the ISA’s chief executive.

In short, like most things child-related, there is no single right answer – just a question of personal choice. Invariably what is preached is coloured by what was practised; parents don’t like to be wrong naturally (particularly if several Mercedes-worth of school fees have been involved) and post-rationalisation is rife. Nevertheless, when it comes to the kids in question, surveys suggest there is no shortage of opinion.
In 2006 The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference found that “40% of people who had a single-sex education wanted their own children to go to a co-educational school” – a striking division, reflective of very different experiences. In part this boils down to a few self-evident truths; we are fixated by stereotypes – the all-girls anorexics, the Eton ego – and, to some extent, they are actually well grounded. Beat, the Eating Disorders Association, says that young girls in ‘hothouse’ independent schools are far more likely to suffer from anorexia than those in mixed; similarly, you only need to look at today’s Cabinet Office to know that there’s many an inflated male ego that could have done with being pricked when it was growing up. Yet while there’s no stereotype without fire (and co-ed too has its fair share), when it comes to your boy or girl there should really only be two deciding factors: the school in question, and the individual child.

Single sex education certainly isn’t for everyone, and while gender typing can be useful, it goes without saying that not every child will conform to it. There will always be girls who do not like ‘language-based learning’, just as some boys will struggle to learn ‘via the manipulation of objects’; a good teacher, runs the co-ed argument, is one that can cater for both. Equally, separate schooling is unlikely to do you many favours if your out-of-school environment is limited too. Siblings, cousins and friends of the opposite sex are valuable assets in any situation; if your school is single sex they are vital. As one former teacher puts it, “in most cases, the chances are you’ll spend much of your life with someone from the opposite sex. There’s no good in not meeting the opposite sex until you’re 20.”

Like an ever-increasing number of headteachers, Dr Nunn believes that the key is for single-sex schools to ensure boys and girls have a well-rounded upbringing, and not to focus solely on churning out the good grades. “What is the purpose of education?” he asks. “We seem to take a rather narrow, functional approach in this country, that says anything that detracts from exams is a distraction rather than a benefit.” These days schools such as Merchant Taylors’, Royal Masonic, St Helen’s and so on encourage their pupils to mix with pupils from neighbouring ‘opposite sex’ schools for joint activities such as drama productions or end-of-term discos. “This is not just tokenism,” Dr Nunn says. “We need to talk more about what is in the child’s best interest.”

Personally, I always felt that the shared school disco was the epitome of everything I disliked about the single sex environment: the nail-biting awkwardness, the competition, the enormous pressure on who would speak to the ‘other side’ first and so on. Yet in hindsight, I can appreciate the thinking behind it. Like one in two children in the local area, your child may opt for single sex education; like 60% of such pupils nationally, they could go on to recommend it in future. But if they do end up having have the time of their life, it won’t be due to their A-Level results; it’ll because they’ve been equipped to handle any situation, whatever their gender. After the disco, the only way is up.

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