In educational terms, this one’s as old as time. Many of the arguments in both directions are well known to the point of being truisms, and yet both market demand and changes in societal context keep the debate bubbling on. Two points need considering. Firstly, has anything meaningful changed? Secondly, with our sector under a seemingly endless barrage, how much should this be a question of ‘versus’ and how much should we – as a collective – be talking about ‘choice’ for families?
A new context?
The market is changing. One cannot help but notice an increasing number of schools choosing to move from single-sex provision to a co-educational offering.
As Bill Penty, head of Trent College, notes, “There are some really interesting shifts in the market, not least that centuries-old bastions of single-sex education are not just considering but going co-educational.” Changes afoot such as those at Winchester College will not have been easy, and paradigm shifts of this nature will not be undertaken lightly. This is big news.
… girls in girls’ schools (of all types) are 2.5 times as likely to take further maths and physics, for example, compared to girls in other schools
Modern context is also a key issue. The impact of a more stringent ‘reading’ of the Equality Act could well raise questions for some schools and general attitudes towards the meaning of ‘gender’ are ubiquitous at present. “There are big questions being asked,” adds Penty, “both in our market and across society about the rise of gender fluidity.” Whether such concerns continue to be made, the hysterical epicentre of everything for much longer remains to be seen, but the fact that the dichotomy between boys and girls is not as clear-cut as it was is undeniable.
Whether schools are opting to shift from single-sex to co-ed out of a change of pedagogic attitude or commercial necessity is likely to be known only from the reading of Governing Body meetings. However, it is happening. Have the age-old scales tipped in the direction of co-ed?
The basics of the argument
Regardless of context, the ‘argument’ remains largely what it was. Nevertheless, the basics sit atop something of an iceberg. The co-educational setting will argue that the ‘bottom line’ is that our world is co-educational – and that precedent should start right from the outset. “How can we prepare children for the world beyond school,” asks Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, “if we segregate girls and boys into single-sex environments that bear no resemblance to the real world?” The single-sex offering will point out that it is disingenuous to claim that boys and girls are ‘the same’ and that they develop and mature differently, making ‘managed separation’ a perfectly reasonable idea.
“Boys and girls just don’t learn in the same way,” notes Sam Price, headmistress of Benenden School, and from this one should surely look to (and can) tailor the teaching ‘styles’ to the gender. “We mould and shape the curriculum to cater for our boys,” adds Paul Symes, headmaster of Aldwickbury School, “from giving practically based lessons to huge amounts of co-curricular activity along with plenty of healthy competition.” Quite often the message has pastoral resonance, too. “You can give them space, without complication, to determine their identity,” adds Price, “and to make mistakes in a safer environment.” The idea of being ‘undistracted’ is a key message.
A further fighting ground of the single-sex proposition is statistical, especially around academic performance and the idea of ‘subject bias’. That a girl might be more likely to choose a subject she otherwise considers ‘for boys’ appears backed by the numbers. The GSA quotes DFE figures stating that girls in girls’ schools (of all types) are 2.5 times as likely to take further maths and physics, for example, compared to girls in other schools. Moreover, a quick glance down the list of the highest performing academic schools in the country shows many to be single-sex and so, prima face, one might link one feature with the other.
“I can’t get away from the fact that they’re going into a co-ed world, and part of school life is normalising relationships as children get older” – Bill Penty, head, Trent College
However, it will quickly be pointed out that one is hard-pressed to find a (genuinely) non-selective single-sex school, and with higher selectivity comes higher ‘on paper’ results, almost by definition. Moreover, the co-educational ‘rebuttal’ of all of this is more philosophical than it is statistical. “I can’t get away from the fact that they’re going into a co-ed world,” muses Penty, “and part of school life is normalising relationships as children get older. We see that sweet spot of girls and boys being together, comfortable in each other’s company, as children rather than as boys and girls.”
The deeper into this debate one dives, the more complex it becomes. The above point, for instance, is not disputed by single-sex schools; rather it is said to be more than adequately mitigated. “We’re aware of the perceptions, of course we are,” adds Symes, “but the modern single-sex offering is more sophisticated than that.”
Social mixing with other single-sex schools or even boys and girls coming together for activities like prefect training, as is the case at Benenden (alongside Tonbridge School), are clearly very powerful. There is also the point that single-sex schools can allow children to grow up more at their own pace and provide ‘big sibling’ figures. “Our older girls are incredibly strong female role models within our student body,” adds Price, “and being a parent of a teenager is hard; a good single-sex school will partner with the family and give a huge sense of reassurance.”
“How can we prepare children for the world beyond school if we segregate girls and boys into single-sex environments that bear no resemblance to the real world?” – Richard Cairns, headmaster, Brighton College
Yet where one counters, so does another. The suggestions around subject choice bias – and increased co-curricular engagement – in single-sex schools are hard to validate statistically and might even reveal a non sequitur. That there may be no barrier to certain subjects or activities in a single-sex school (like a boy in the choir or a girl doing physics) might be true, but that doesn’t necessitate that there is such a barrier in a co-educational school. “I think physics isn’t very popular because it’s hard…” adds Penty with a smile. Without the same child ‘having their time’ twice one cannot make this a hill to die on.
From here, we can descend into even greater complexity. Should we lump ‘all boys’ and ‘all girls’ together in this debate? Is prep-age single-sex a different argument to senior-age single-sex? “Parents have the option to go co-ed at 13+; they can have both options if they choose,” notes Symes. Is the idea of ‘tailoring to gender’ more about tailoring to individuals rather than broad strokes assumptions about the sexes?
You can award a ‘win on points’ however you choose to at this stage, with the only thing close to a ‘knockout’ seeming to come from “a co-ed world needs co-ed schools”; but some would dispute that, too.
The Best of Both Worlds
Is something in-between viable? Many would say so. “I do think there’s a place for the best of both worlds,” says Philip Britton MBE, headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division, “In our setting we can be either together or separate.” Schools like Bolton School – operating on an incarnation of the ‘diamond’ model – look to be co-educational up to a point before separating the sexes for classroom learning (albeit not necessarily for co-curricular activities) before returning to co-educational provision in the sixth form. “We are doing a good thing in educating them separately at the right times, and pastoral issues can be addressed far more directly.”
The impact of a more stringent ‘reading’ of the Equality Act could well raise questions for some schools and general attitudes towards the meaning of ‘gender’ are ubiquitous at present
Yet even such an approach isn’t holding entirely firm. A long-standing bastion of the diamond model, Stamford Endowed Schools, announced in May 2022 that it was becoming fully co-educational – arguably ‘losing’ one of its key differentiators. Why? Modern ‘relevance’ of co-education seems the key. Wil Phelan, principal, states, “There is no doubt that single-sex education has stood many generations of young people in good stead, but the world – and the needs of our students – has moved on. We believe that co-education is absolutely the right educational environment for young people and that their social and emotional development is best served in a co-ed environment.”
Choice – a Conclusion
Words like ‘argue’ and ‘versus’ are everywhere.
Should they be? As much as it makes for a nice headline, is a dispute useful? “I don’t think parents should come with a decision,” notes Price, “they should visit the types of schools the sector provides so they understand the context. Single-sex is not right for everyone.”
Penty is similarly philosophical, adding, “I’ve taught in single-sex boys and girls – and co-educational – schools, and they’ve all been excellent; they serve different clientele, and their outcomes are outstanding.”
It’s hard to argue against the idea that co-ed has the nose, and that the tide is moving that way; but families have choice, and many are still choosing single-sex. So, as a sector, we need to remember ourselves as a collective. As Symes rightly adds, “There is an increase in demand in this country for quality education and that is what we, as a sector, provide in a wonderfully rich variety of forms.”
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