Single-Sex Schools Or Classes? What’s The Longer Term Impact?
Recent figures confirm that girls are doing better at school (and university) than boys. Single-sex classes within co-ed schools are not however generally seen as a way to resolve this inequality. But how much do we know about the longer-term impact on men and women of single-sex or mixed gender teaching?
Increasing concern about the higher academic achievement of girls than of boys in the U.K. has again raised the issue of single-sex classes (or even schools) as the norm.
Reasons for this concern are interesting, given the historical lack of concern* when girls under-performed relative to boys (and given also that even highly women still earn much less than their male counterparts). Nonetheless, current concerns are both legitimate and pressing.
[* With honourable exceptions – e.g. the fourth letter by Edward Brotherton in this 1864 Manchester Guardian correspondence.]
There is an uncomfortable feeling, overall, that the underperformance of boys is likely to lead to a larger disaffected ‘underclass’, than when things were the other way around.
And we can add to that the obvious consequence of
underperformance, in restricting the availability of talent to the economy, whether this be a male or female issue.
For these reasons, as well as for reasons of equality of opportunity as such, much debate has recently occurred on the subject of mixed-sex and single-sex classes and schools. The general (but not unanimous) opinion on the basis of available evidence, it seems, is that there is little impact either way.
Frankly, I have my doubts about whether this analysis is adequate.
The evidence over many decades is that women do significantly less well economically and professionally than men, if you look at mature outcomes. And this happens even for people with the same qualifications. In other words, any initial advantage
diminishes as time goes on, almost regardless of family, parenthood (men become parents, too) and much else.
But there is one element of background which seems to make a difference, for women if not for men – and that is the ‘space’ in the secondary years which single-sex classes offer girls, to learn (some) things independently of boys.
It seems, especially in the more mathematically-related curriculum, that this helps girls; and it probably also helps in terms of self-determination and a conviction that it’s OK as an independent person to go ahead and do things with one’s life.
Certainly, this was a major indicator, in research undertaken quite early on by myself and others looking at how women scientists hold their own.
And perhaps the same applies to boys. If the girls aren’t there to talk about all the soft stuff in class, maybe the boys would have to have the courage to talk about it themselves – which could be an important help when ‘real life’ catches up with them in later adolescence and adulthood.
Balancing different agendas
There is a suspicion that some schools prefer mixed teaching because they see the girls (more mature and less disruptive?) as a stabilising influence on the boys. But this is not an equitable way forward and two wrongs do not make a
I’d go for the so-called ‘diamond’ arrangement – segregated teaching for some core subject in the early years of secondary school – but not, if at all possible, for totally separate schools for girls and boys. There can surely be a middle way.
Even more critically, I’d make sure that analysis of research findings routinely extends beyond formal education to life outcomes, so we begin to understand more fully ‘what happens’ when individuals receive single-sex or co-ed teaching in their formative years.