Do boys and girls benefit from being taught together? Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, says ‘yes’, Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, says ‘no’.
- Consider the claims below and discuss them with a friend. Do you agree or disagree?
- Read the text (below) and decide who the claims belong to – Richard Cairns or Helen Fraser?
- Add comments! Tell us about schools in your culture. What works best – single sex or coeducational?
Richard Cairns is head of Brighton College in East Sussex, which was named UK School of the Year 2013-14 at the Independent Schools Awards.
Open any school prospectus and you’ll see the same vision outlined: to prepare children for adult life, both academically and socially. And yet, some people still seem to believe this can be achieved in the highly artificial environment of a single-sex school. I find it very curious. Whether you’re starting a degree or embarking on a career, it’s obviously vital that you’re able to get on well with people of both genders. Recent research published in the American journal Science suggests that women who attended single-sex colleges were “compromised in the workplace as their ability to network and cooperate with men was inhibited”. This is hardly surprising. In a coeducational school such as Brighton College, boys and girls learn together, converse together and grow into adulthood together. They’re at ease with one another and, in my personal experience, more at ease with themselves.
I’ve worked in both single-sex and mixed schools, and know there are good schools of both types. But it has always struck me that mixed schools are much kinder places. There’s little of the emotional intensity that bedevils girls’ schools and often leads to bullying — interestingly, when I ask girls from single-sex schools why they’re keen to join the sixth form at Brighton College, this is what they tend to tell me. Nor is there the sense that you get at some all-boys schools that only those who play in the First XV are relevant. At mixed schools boys are much more likely to dance, sing and act. In my first week here, I witnessed a rather gentle young man being lauded by a group of girls for his performance in a play.
In mixed schools, pupils are at ease with one another and with themselves. Everyone respects — and, indeed, admires — each other, which is a wonderful thing to witness. It used to be argued that girls do better academically — particularly in stereotypically “male” subjects — when there are no boys around to distract or inhibit them. But decades of research in the UK and further afield has cast serious doubt on this. The Science research I mentioned earlier reports that such arguments relied on “weak, cherrypicked or misconstrued scientific claims” and that, in fact, there is evidence “sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimises institutional sexism”. And the real reason some all-girls schools have a strong track record in traditionally “masculine” subjects, such as physics, is that they’re highly selective institutions. Quite simply, clever girls are more likely to study physics than those of average ability. Whether they are sharing classes with boys is a much less significant factor. It was Plato who first argued that boys and girls should be taught together. I suspect he’d be thrilled by the direction in which things are moving. Even in the independent sector, seen as the last bastion of segregated schooling, only 10 per cent of boys and 16pc of girls are now educated in single-sex schools. And that number is likely to fall further. There are now a third fewer girls’ schools and half as many boys’ schools as there were 20 years ago — a trend surely set to continue. Nothing could be more natural, nor more sensible.”
Helen Fraser is chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), the UK’s leading network of independent girls’ schools.
I’m often asked “Why should I choose a single-sex school?” From a purely personal perspective, I benefited enormously from attending one — as did my daughters and step-daughters. But our experiences are backed up by the research: extensive studies have shown that, for a variety of reasons, girls’ learning needs are simply different from boys’. In the classroom, girls tend to prefer cooperative, discussion-based learning, focused on real-world scenarios. They’re usually better equipped to plan and organise their work, and take well to projects, too. There will always be exceptions but on the whole, in a mixed classroom, boys tend to dominate discussions, frequently putting themselves forward as leaders in group activities. Girls, meanwhile, are inclined to hold back. It follows that teachers will, subconsciously, try to play to boys’ strengths in order to get the best out of them. So it’s really only in single-sex environments that girls can take centre stage. Equally, when I speak to the heads of boys-only schools, they say that they welcome having the opportunity to focus on what works best for the boys in their care.
Grouping pupils by age or ability is nothing new — in fact, it’s something that all schools do. If this is designed to ensure individual pupils’ learning needs are met, surely it makes sense to organise along gender lines, too? I’m not alone in thinking this: around 40 per cent of pupils in independent senior schools, up to GCSE, are taught in single-sex environments. I’ve come across parents who have been worried that their daughters, having been educated in an all-girls school, won’t know how to interact with the opposite sex when they get out into the big wide world. I’ve even heard single-sex schools described as “unnatural” places. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our GDST girls have plenty of chances to meet and talk with boys outside the school day, and we include boys from local schools in drama productions, debates and various social events. That being said, the teenage years are a time when there can be huge pressure to behave in a “gender appropriate” way — and that can include subject choices, which may explain why half of all maintained sector schools have no girls at all doing A-level physics. At our 26 GDST schools and academies, the girls are encouraged to challenge stereotypes, and this is reflected in their choice of subjects. They’re 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. When you put all of this together, you get confident girls who feel free to choose from the whole range of subjects, show a greater willingness to take risks, perform better in exams and have more chances to demonstrate leadership skills — all hugely positive attributes to have under their belts. If giving girls the opportunity to be free of gender stereotyping and associated pressure is unnatural, I for one am glad that single-sex schools are rewriting the rules.”
Who do you agree with? Are mixed schools the way forward? Comments below!