Should boys and girls be taught separately in our schools?
‘Even now, there are some who argue that single-sex schooling is a practical response to girls’ preference for ‘learning more collaboratively’, or boys’ brains being ‘wired differently’.
Is it time to entirely rethink the existence of gender segregation in state-funded education?
Proponents of single-sex education point to stark gender divides in subject choices. In 2016, 76% of psychology and 73% of English A-level entries came from girls. On the flip side, more than nine in 10 young people taking computing A-level are boys.
For some, this is why we need single-sex education. The Institute of Physics has pointed out that compared to their peers in mixed schools, females in all girls’ schools are more likely to take physics at A-level (another notoriously “male” subject). One hypothesis is that pupils in single-sex schools are less influenced by myths about boys being better at maths and science, or girls being better in English. Research shows that in single-sex schools, boys are more likely to see themselves as “above average” in English and girls are less likely to view their maths ability as “below average”.
But more single-sex education is not the solution. Inequalities in A-level uptake do not completely disappear in single-sex schools. And separating boys and girls does nothing to tackle the underlying structural inequality in society. I’m a case in point. I left school with A-levels in both English and psychology, two subjects that feature near the top of the league table showing the difference in A-level grades between female and male students – despite attending an all-girls school between the age of 11 and 18.
Although I did well in maths and science, I dropped them at the first opportunity. Perhaps my early boy-free environment allowed me to develop a positive belief in my academic ability in “masculine” subjects. But at what cost are we willing to accept these
gains – and what message are we sending to our girls when we tell them that they can only flourish in a boy-free bubble?
We should also reflect on why we pathologise girls for not taking Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects but seem unconcerned that few boys study English or childcare. Moreover, the gender gap in attainment has hardly shrunk in the last nine years. Last year, 73% of GCSE entries by females were graded A* to C, compared to only 64% of entries by male pupils, the largest gender gap since 2002.
Against this backdrop, sexual harassment in our schools continues to go unchallenged. If we have to separate boys and girls to ensure they fulfil their potential, we fail to address the issues that lie behind these trends. We also forget that most pupils will continue to be educated in mixed schools, and that all pupils will leave school and transition to a mixed world.
One of the strongest determinants of young people’s belief in gender stereotypes is the attitude of their parents. Segregated schools do not address this. Parents’ evenings frequently included parents making comments like: “She’s not one for maths – that’s girls for you.” Or “you know what boys are like, they can’t sit still long enough to write”. While none of these parents wanted to hinder their child’s success, gender biases are so deeply entrenched in our worldview that it’s difficult to avoid them. Rather than fighting a losing battle to insulate pupils from these attitudes, schools should instead actively challenge them. The organisation Fearless Futures, for instance, runs equality and leadership development programmes with girls to develop understanding of gender and inequality by engaging critically with normalised messages that shape men and women’s experiences.
More fundamentally, when we ask ourselves “what is the purpose of education?”, most of us will at least mention the importance of preparing young people for the world beyond school. This world is male, female, and indeed myriad other dimensions of gender, sexuality and intersections thereof. As Luke Tryl, director of strategy at Ofsted recently argued, schools are one of the last few unifying structures in society. We should think twice before compromising that universalism in the name of insulating pupils from the stereotypes that they will inevitably have to confront in the future.
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