We wouldn't segregate workplaces by gender - so why schools?

If single sex environments are really so much more productive, we wouldn’t draw the line at 18

As of 2009, only around 11 per cent of British schoolchildren attended them
As of 2009, only around 11 per cent of British schoolchildren attended them

The issue of single sex education has landed on the news agenda again, thanks to Richard Cairns, the head at Brighton College. Girls’ schools, he wrote in Independent School Parent, place young women at a “huge disadvantage” compared to their co-ed peers. What good are “a clutch of A*s and a first class degree”, Cairns asks, when you “cannot meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues”?

At face value, Cairns’ comments seem a little backward, even patronising. Yet his focus on women, and on their relations with men, make more sense in the context of the girl-focussed body of research around single sex schools. Various studies claim that girls are more confident and assertive when not surrounded by boys, and are more likely to choose subjects traditionally seen as “male”, like physics or maths. Yet as Cairns writes, girls at his mixed school are a little “nonplussed” at their supposed “inability to thrive because they are sitting next to boys in class”.

School is preparation for life, and the idea that it should involve segregation from those of a different gender, race or class is ridiculous at best, regressive at worst. The presence of a student who is a little less mature than you, or someone who you (gasp) fancy, may be distracting, but it’s also something you’ll face throughout life. If girls are overpowered by pushy boys in the classroom, this should be tackled by teachers – not by sending each group to different schools.

Then there are the obvious logical limits to the argument that boys and girls learn differently, and somehow act as barriers to one another’s education. First, the obvious: treating the opposite gender as an inherent "distraction" loses all meaning when we accept that students might identify as a whole range of genders and, later, sexualities. Single sex schools also come with their own problems - the vicious bullying and gender normativity reported by my female friends; the macho one-upmanship experienced by boys.

Meanwhile, supposed gendered differences in maturity or attainment would be straightened out by the streaming systems in place at most schools, and even the occasional sex-segregated lesson, which have been brought in to positive results in some mixed institutions. The existence of this more nuanced educational approach leaves single sex schools looking outdated and even a little odd. It’s unlikely that segregated schools would be invented in British society today if they didn't exist already. As of 2009, only around 11 per cent of British schoolchildren attended them.

To those who would still argue that boys and girls are better off separated during their school years, I would ask this: if it's really such a superior way of doing things, why stop at 18? Why don't we have segregated workplaces? Universities? Shops?

While gender segregation may have some subtle benefits, especially when it comes to getting girls to speak up in class, the practice doesn’t actually solve anything – it just shields young people from these issues for a few years longer.

So yes - there are problems in the way that males and females interact in every sphere from the classroom to the boardroom. But perhaps we should work on overcoming them, rather than sending the men off to Mars and the women to Venus.

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