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Are single-sex schools good for girls?

Alice Cockerell and Camilla Swift debate the question

NO

I am pretty sure my all-girl school turned me into a delinquent. All right, I might not have peed in phone boxes, graffiti’d on trains or spent time in a state penitentiary. But for all of this, I definitely think a strain of delinquency was bred into me by single–sex education. Just outside a sedentary market town in the West Country, my boarding school had presumably been chosen by my mother to instil in me a measure of gentility; it certainly wasn’t for the academia. Old dames, many of whom had been at the school themselves during the Boer War, made up the teaching staff.

It is hard to express how sex-obsessed we were; no gardener went unharassed, no teacher not featured in some revolting ‘Would you rather?’ scenario. However, as it was a religious school, our main attention was reserved for clergymen. Standard practice was to accidentally-on-purpose tuck our kilts into our knickers if there was a guest preacher on Sunday. The statistics for the merits of single-sex education have long been puzzling and ambiguous; the received wisdom has been that boys do better co-ed, while girls are more suited to single-sex.

More recently the notion that single-sex education prevents the sexes from falling into social stereotypes has been added to the debate. Dr Ross Barrand, head of external relations at Roedean, says, ‘more girls are doing the more “boy” subjects of maths and science at A level. The class sizes for the traditionally “girl” subjects of English, history and the languages are around five, compared to ten or 11 for the traditionally boy–orientated subjects.’

What confuses me about the line of argument that single-sex education is paving the way to gender equality is that it tends to be used in the same breath as the theory that girls and boys should be taught in different ways. Caroline Jordan, president of the Girls’ School Association and headmistress of Headington School, talks about how her girls are taught Jane Austen for their set texts, while her son’s school will choose something like Journey’s End, ‘because they are boys’.

This is the kind of thinking that I resent so much about my schooling; the idea that we, as girls, were somehow ‘other’ and should be treated differently. More maddening still is that I worry that the message did stick. The interesting thing is that this is not confined to provincial boarding schools like mine — a form of it is the very ‘mantra’ of that golden exemplar of single-sex education, St Paul’s. As my sister, Rachel, who left two years ago, says, ‘It was drummed into us that women were very different from men. Better of course. That we are a sort of super-race and have a responsibility to the slightly feeble-minded male population.’ Heaven though this kind of thinking is, it is not the best preparation for a future that will be largely mixed.


Tony Little, former headmaster of Eton, has said that single-sex education allows students to ‘be themselves’ for longer — the implication being that prolonged contact with the opposite sex causes them to lose their True Self. The difficulty is that later life is not just to do with grades achieved at school, but about communication. Many of the teachers I spoke to stressed the extracurricular opportunities their pupils have to meet the opposite sex. Yet I think that unless you are taught in the same way as the opposite sex, you will never completely believe that they will learn in the same way as you. And it is this — along with a predisposition to harass members of the cloth — that is the great setback of single-sex education.                 AC

YES

I know full well that all-girls schools don’t have the best reputation. They’re often painted as places from which girls emerge having been locked away for years, desperate to socialise with boys, and are accused of creating strangely unnatural environments. But is this a fair analysis?

The school I went to was fairly academic. But when I left, I was presented with the singing prize and the cookery prize — so perhaps I missed the memo about academia. But one of the best things about the place was that we had the choice to take whatever subjects we wanted, and do whatever extracurricular activities we wanted, without there being one rule for boys and another for girls.

I know that in general girls are more likely to choose ‘arty’ subjects than boys — a pattern which is reflected in the number going on to study the sciences and engineering at university — but I honestly didn’t see that at all. At my school, as many girls chose to study science and maths up to A-level as they did the humanities and arts, and I do think that was because we didn’t feel pressurised into studying specific things on the grounds of sex. Yes, we were offered ‘girly’ activities such as cookery and needlework. But we also had rowing, football, rugby and debating, and other extracurricular options that certainly weren’t typically ‘feminine’.

So do I regret being sent to an all-girls boarding school? No, not at all. In fact, I think that we did better out of it — partly because we didn’t even have to consider what boys might think about the choices that we made. In the Upper Sixth, for example, we were allowed to dispense with uniform and wear whatever we pleased. But this didn’t offer up a perfect opportunity for short skirts and tight tops. Almost exactly the opposite happened: tracksuit bottoms and hoodies were the order of the day. Some girls even turned up in class wearing their pyjama bottoms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the year after I left, they changed the rules so that girls in their final year had to wear smart clothes, rather than tracksuit bottoms. (Our apologies to all subsequent sixth-formers.)

Without the distractions of boys or pressure to conform, we chose the subjects that we liked, and dressed the way we wanted, without worrying about having to impress anyone. I don’t think this was specific to my school, either. As Helen Fraser, president of the Girls’ Day School Trust, has pointed out, girls at the schools under her umbrella are ‘more than twice as likely to take physics, chemistry or engineering at university than girls nationally, and five times more likely to study medicine at degree level’.

What about boys? How does a single-sex education affect them? Some argue that boys do better in a mixed environment, but not everyone agrees. The thing is, as much as it might upset certain people, I think that girls and boys are best off being taught in different ways, and I’m not sure that pretending otherwise is constructive. As one former head at an all-boys’ school told me: ‘A single-sex education is good for boys because the teachers can teach in a way which suits boys — for example, focusing on non-fiction literature, using competition as a motivating tool, and being tougher than you could be with girls. Single-sex schools allow boys to be boys and have a big emphasis on sport.’

This is someone who has taught in both mixed and all-boys’ schools, mind you, and has seen first-hand how the sexes learn in different ways. For both boys and girls, a single-sex environment allows teachers to focus on the best methods of teaching for that specific gender, rather than choosing a middle ground, which isn’t the perfect solution for either sex.

And after we finished school, and went on to university and beyond? We hadn’t spent our school years alongside boys, that’s true, but I don’t think that stopped us from knowing how to socialise or communicate with members of the opposite sex when we did leave, which often seems to be a concern among opponents of single-sex education. Looking around my friends now — both male and female — you’d have no idea which of them had been educated in a mixed school, or in a single-sex one. Some might not like the idea of separating the sexes — but I can assure you that no lasting harm has been done.      CS


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