At a recent event, I was talking to one of our parents about her decision to send her daughter to my school – a selective and single-sex school in the north of England. She talked about how glad she was that she had chosen an all-girls’ school for her daughter: her daughter was more confident socially and able to pursue her scientific interests unchallenged – precisely because she was learning in an all-female environment. This comment is, indeed, mirrored in the views of many who choose single-sex secondary education for their daughters.
The question of single-sex education is never far from the news, particularly when the media is reflecting on examination results. Nevertheless, there are reports of falling numbers of girls’ schools across the country and many do argue that girls – in order to be prepared for working life – need the social benefits of growing up alongside boys. Some would question whether girls’ school alumnae are able to communicate as effectively in the world of work as they could, precisely because they were not challenged by boys during those formative years. Others would suggest that women are simply more naïve as a result of their single-sex educational background. It has also been argued that single-sex education and the stereotype that girls work harder are having a negative effect on the results achieved by boys. A study reported in the Daily Telegraph in February 2013 noted that this is resulting in boys being prevented from achieving their own academic potential. If a boy is told that girls do better, then he may well go on to fulfil that prophecy. Boys in general, therefore, may not do as well as their female counterparts simply because they are told that they will not! Encouraging girls and boys to work side-by-side in an equal-handed way may, therefore, produce a greater proportion of academically successful boys.
Conversely, however, many would argue that girls do indeed learn better surrounded by other girls. Girls can be taught by teachers who simply know what techniques to use to enable them to flourish and girls simply prefer it this way. Furthermore, on 23 February this year, Alun Jones, who is president of the Girls’ Schools Association, commented that “the relative lack of stereotypical expectations and presumptions rooted in gender that girls enjoy in independent girls’ schools means that they not only perform well in science, they choose to continue to study it at A level.” This view is supported by some powerful statistics, with the GSA quoting that, compared to all girls nationally, girls are 75 percent more likely to take maths at A level and 70 percent more likely to take chemistry if they attend an all-girls’ school. These statistics are hard to ignore for any parent deciding on which route they wish their daughter to take. They also suggest, perhaps, that more needs to be done to ensure that girls perceive that STEM subjects are available for them, without prejudice, in all schooling environments.
Nevertheless, there may be a more fundamental issue that this brief outline of the case ignores. A single-sex school is not, by definition, a good school. Being a great school is not one that just delivers excellent academic results or one which is single-sex, but one which enables every child to succeed personally and professionally once they leave school. It is one that prepares each child for his or her future and sees its pastoral responsibilities in providing a holistic education as paramount. I think that Charlotte Avery, the headmistress of St Mary’s School in Cambridgeshire (quoted in the Daily Telegraph in June 2013) makes a crucial point: “Schools are great schools because of their ethos, their heads, their traditions, the quality of the teachers employed, and I would argue that any and all of these override the single-sex/co-educational debate.”
Helen Jeys is Deputy Head at Manchester High School for Girls