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Should we sound the bell on single-sex schools?

Many parents still believe that boys and girls learn better when segregated. Yet the latest evidence suggests nothing of the kind, reports Clint Witchall

It’s October, that crazy time of year when parents frantically drag their children from one school “open day” to another in the hope they’ll find the perfect place for their sons and daughters to flourish.

Parents have to weigh up the merits and demerits of a bewildering array of schools, including academy schools, grammar schools, free schools, faith-based schools, private schools and single-sex schools. Although fewer of the latter. In 1966, there were 2,500 single-sex schools in the UK. In 2006 there were about 400 (the Department for Education was unable to provide an up-to-date figure on single-sex schools in the UK). Where choice in some areas of education seems to be flourishing, in other areas, it seems to be dwindling. Is single-sex education becoming a cultural relic?

Three years ago, addressing a conference in Winchester, the then head of the Girls’ Schools Association, Vicky Tuck, said: “Far from living in the dying days of single-sex education, I am confident that as understanding of the brain continues to evolve, what is obvious to us will become obvious to everyone: girls learn in a different way to boys and it is crucial to cater for their separate needs. I have a hunch that in 50 years’ time, maybe only 25, people will be doubled up with laughter when they watch documentaries about the history of education and discover people once thought it was a good idea to educate adolescent boys and girls together.”

Twenty five years haven’t elapsed, but a lot more research has and no one is laughing, least of all the authors of the paper, “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling”, published in the journal Science last month. The authors argue that data to support the educational benefits of single-sex education consists of “weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims”. They say there is no well-designed research that proves that single-sex education improves a child’s academic performance. The authors cite as evidence a US Department of Education review comparing single-sex and co-educational results, which found no discernable difference in outcome. Other large-scale reviews in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have come to the same conclusion. And in Belgium, where single-sex schools are the norm, co-educational schools outperform single-sex schools.

Despite the findings, many parents are still keen to send their children to a single-sex school. A survey by the Independent Association of Prep Schools reported that 72 per cent of boys’ prep schools saw a rise in student numbers last year, compared with only 14 per cent that saw a drop. The rise in student numbers comes only from boys’ prep schools. Girls’ schools have actually seen a slight drop in enrolment.

Single-sex schools tend to ride high in school league tables, not because separating the genders leads to better learning, but because they are often independent schools with stringent admission criteria. And when parents are doling out thousands of pounds a term for their child’s education, they tend to take a keen interest in their offspring’s progress. It’s a virtuous circle.

Of course, not all single-sex schools are independent. However, most in the state sector are grammar schools or former grammar schools, and hence, also selective. The authors of the above mentioned article in Science, say: “Although excellent public SS [single-sex] schools clearly exist, there is no empirical evidence that their success stems from their SS organisation, as opposed to the quality of the student body, demanding curricula, and many other features also known to promote achievement at co-educational schools.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t have a choice? “If we had any evidence at all that could prove single-sex schools are bad for you, then I would say we shouldn’t have the choice,” says Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist and expert on child development. “As we don’t have that evidence, I think the choice should be there, if possible.”

Jenny Hjul had that choice and she decided to send both her daughters – Josephine, 14, and Harriet, 11 – to St George’s School for Girls, an independent school in Edinburgh. Looking back, Hjul suspects that she and her husband chose St George’s based on its excellent academic record, but they also saw benefits beyond academic performance. “One of the main things in favour of all-girls education is, they go through life feeling the leadership roles are theirs,” says Hjul. “It’s only girls who can be form captains and head girls and house captains – they don’t have to compete with boys. But the other good thing is that they grew up in a world where all the top positions are held by women. The head teacher is a woman, and although there are some male staff, all the leadership roles in the school are held by women.”

But gender segregation is not common in society, outside of prison, sports and some religious institutions, so how will Hjul’s children cope when faced with a competitive mixed-sex workplace? “Because they’ve been at the top of their class and they’ve held their own academically at school, they’ve probably got a lot more confidence than…” Hjul trails off. “It’s terrible to generalise, but there’s never a confidence issue with these girls.”

While the authors of “The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling” say that single-sex schooling is “institutional sexism disguised as choice”, Hjul doesn’t see it that way. In a co-ed school, she says boys play football and girls stand around the edge watching the boys, where as at St George’s the girls are the one s are the ones playing football. She says that the girls are also more likely to choose subjects that have traditionally been seen as male subjects, such as maths and science. There is less pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.

“I think some kids really could profit from a more secure educational environment,” says Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at the MRC Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre. “You’re more cosseted, I would say, in the more well-to-do, single-sex school. It may be that some kids can do very well in that system. For most kids, maybe it doesn’t matter, but we should be thinking about individual differences rather than sex differences.”

But their brains are different. Aren’t they? Plomin says brain research projects that claim to show differences between the sexes are often small studies, and hence, not reliable. Most of the differences between children are individual differences, not differences due to gender. “There’s a whole field now called educational neuroscience and it’s so glib – taking tiny differences and making it sound as though it’s a black and white thing,” says Plomin. “Just about anything you read in education about neuroscience you have to take with many grains of salt.” Plomin suspects that people look for a biological basis – no matter how flimsy – to support their existing biases.

Linda Blair agrees that the evidence shows little variance between boys and girls. “Any difference you find between girls and boys is on a graph that overlaps,” she says. “You will find no consistent, absolute difference. We even have the same hormones, just in different levels. You can talk about different styles of aching because different kids need different styles. So teach lots of ways of approaching your kids so that in each year, in your year-group, you teach in the best way.”

Whether a child is a boy or a girl doesn’t tell you much about their personality, their independence and their learning styles. That much, experts in the field agree on. But others are muddying the water, citing obscure, small or unreliable studies in support of single-sex education. One such person is Leonard Sax, American author of Why Gender Matters, Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge. If single-sex advocates, such as Sax, gain influence in the UK, parents might sit up and listen. And with the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, throwing money at anyone who has the inclination to start a school in their area, we might see a revival of the single-sex school.

More choice might be a boon, but only if parents are armed with the facts and don’t believe the story that boys and girls have different learning styles. “It would be nice to say, OK, my child is different, maybe they would thrive in a single-sex school,” says Plomin. “Whereas someone else might say, no it probably wouldn’t work. For most parents it would be useful to let them know that none of it matters very much, from an empirical point of view. That’s quite liberating