Single-sex schools are schools that only admit those of one specific gender, believing that the educational environment fostered by a single gender is more conducive to learning than a co-educational school. Studies conducted have shown that boys gain more academically from studying in co-education schools, but that girls find segregated schools more conducive to achievement. However academic results are not the only criterion on which the success of the education system should be judged. In the United States, a long-standing controversy over the Virginia Military Institute resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, in June 1996, that the institute must admit women. Nevertheless the Court left room for private (i.e. not state-run) single-sex institutions and other such schools, where needed, to redress discrimination. Proponents of single-sex schools maintain that, by removing the distractions of the other sex, students learn more effectively and feel better about their education. Opponents maintain that co-educational schools in contrast are important in that they prepare students better for the real world, and do not attempt to segregate students from the realities of adult life. This debate can apply both to secondary school and college level, but single-sex institutions are found more frequently at the former.
Women in particular benefit from a single-sex education; research shows that they participate more in class, develop much higher self-esteem, score higher in aptitude tests, are more likely to choose ‘male’ disciplines such as science in college, and are more successful in their careers. In the USA Who’s Who, graduates of women’s colleges outnumber all other women; there are only approximately 50 women’s colleges left in the States today. Elizabeth Tidball, who conducted the Who’s Who research, also later concluded that women’s colleges produced ‘more than their fair share who went on to medical school or received doctorates in the natural or life sciences’, typically male fields.
Other studies have found that women in fact are not any better off in single-sex institutions. A 1998 survey from the American Association of University Women, a long-time advocate of single-sex education, admitted that girls from such schools did not show any academic improvement. That they are more inclined towards maths and sciences is of questionable importance to society as a whole. As the report noted, "boys and girls both thrive when the elements of good education are there, elements like smaller classes, focused academic curriculum and gender-fair instruction". These can all be present in co-educational schools. Tidball in her research made the mistake of not controlling for other characteristics, namely socio-economic privileges of those at elite women’s colleges.
Boys and girls distract each other from their education, especially in adolescence as their sexual and emotional sides develop. Too much time can be spent attempting to impress or even sexually harassing each other (particularly boys toward girls). Academic competition between the sexes is unhealthy and only adds to unhappiness and anxiety among weaker students. As Tricia Kelleher, a school principal, argues, ‘rather than girls defining themselves by their interests, they define themselves by what the boys think of them or what other girls think boys think of them’. Furthermore, John Silber, President of Boston University, declared in 2002 that his university would prioritize male applications in order to even up the student composition and ensure the male population did not become ‘ungentlemanly’ towards women due to their numerical inferiority. A single-sex environment is therefore a space where (children) can learn without feeling pressurized by the other sex’.
In fact boys and girls are a good influence on each other, engendering good behaviour and maturity – particularly as teenage girls usually exhibit greater responsibility than boys of the same age. Academic competition between the sexes is a spur to better performance at school. Any negative effects of co-educational schools have been explained away by studies as the result of other factors, such as ‘classroom size, economic discrepancies and cultural differences’. Furthermore, the separation of boys and girls only serves to embrace sexual objectification, for they exist for each other only as dates rather than the classmates they would be in a co-educational environment. Allowing them into the same educational environment, in part to permit them to distract each other, is a welcome social development as well as a beneficial learning curve.
Co-educational schools attempt to establish uniformity in the teaching of two groups, boys and girls, who typically learn and develop at different speeds and using different methods. ‘They do not develop in the same way or at the same time; boys favour visual processing and do not have the hand-motor control that girls readily achieve in early grades’. It is widely accepted that ‘boys develop more slowly than girls..that’s true at every level of analysis’. Furthermore, they develop physically at different speeds, girls often developing earlier which can lead to bullying from the opposite sex for those who either over-develop or under-develop. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that, at least in the United States, elementary school boys are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than girls and they drop out of high school a third more often. If they were taught separately and the curriculum and teaching was tailored to their needs, drop-out rates would not be so high nor as vastly disproportionate.
Everyone develops at slightly different speeds, however few would advocate everyone should be home-schooled. Ultimately, the curriculum determines the mode of teaching, not the gender composition of the class, and the curriculum can be moulded to suit both girls and boys, faster and slower learners and those with under-developed hand-motor control. If elementary school boys are being forced to repeat grades that is a manifestation of difficulties in learning and as relevant to their proximity to girls in the classroom as it is to the higher-achieving boys. Furthermore, the sociologist Cynthia Epstein argues that in fact ‘there is no consensus among psychologists as to the existence of psychological or cognitive differences between the sexes’. Finally, as Michael Bronski notes, the benefits of same-sex schools cannot be applied across the educational sphere for the private schools where the tests take place admit ‘either only high-achieving pupils or self-select by expelling poorly-performing or misbehaving students’.
Teachers frequently favour their own gender when teaching co-educational classes; for example, male teachers can undermine the progress and confidence of girl students by refusing to choose them to answer questions etc. A recent study by the American Association of University Women found that ‘gender bias is a major problem at all levels of schooling’, asserting ‘girls are plagued by sexual harassment and neglected by sexist teachers, who pay more attention to boys’. As a result, girls tend to fall behind their male counterparts.
There is little evidence to support this claim. Valerie Lee, a professor at the University of Michigan, studied a sample of coeducational, all-boys and all-girls independent schools, finding that ‘the frequency of sexist incidents was similar in the three types of schools’. Wendy Kaimer argues that the restraints of femininity are actually ‘self-imposed’ at single-sex schools, ‘whether manifested in feminine décor or…pandering to women’s fear of masculinizing themselves’.
The formative years of children are the best time to expose them to the company of the other gender, in order that they may learn each other’s’ behaviour and be better prepared for adult life. Moreover, the school's role is to prepare its students for life which involves interaction between the sexes, by preventing inter-sexual interaction we hurt the role of the school significantly. The effects of same-sex schools are significant. This creates segregation men and women, this which as a result of a lack of contact between them can create fear and uneasiness between them. This might be compatred to segregation between black and white in the USA or South Africa where the resulting racism and troubles to bond has yet to heal. We already live in a society where women are discriminated against, segregation cannot be the answer to this. Furthermore, the number of subjects benefiting from single-sex discussion is so small that this could easily be organised within a co-educational system. Furthermore, even if girls naturally perform better in an environment without boys, they need to learn how to perform just as well with boys. Dr. Alan Smithers, a respected British schools expert, declared in a 2006 report that ‘distraction by boys was a myth’ and that ‘half a century of research has not shown any dramatic or consistent advantages for single-sex education for boys or girls’.
Children will gain exposure to the opposite sex when they reach adult life; whilst they are young, they should be around those who they feel most comfortable with. The inclinations of children in the formative years, between 7 and 15, are to gravitate towards their own sex. What is natural should be encouraged, and can most easily be done so in single-sex institutions. Furthermore, they naturally tend towards behaviour appropriate to their gender. It is therefore easier to implement an education strategy geared specifically towards one gender. Moreover, certain subjects are best taught, both in terms of ease and effectiveness, in single-sex classrooms, such as sex education or gender issues.
Single-sex schools are a throwback to the patriarchal society of the past; in many historical cultures, only men were allowed an education of any sort. To perpetuate this is to remind women of their past subservience and to continue to hold them from full social inclusion. In India, where the colonial yoke of British rule remains, the national average for the difference in male-female literacy is 16.7%, with some districts as high as 28%. Single-sex schools discourage female education and make it increasingly difficult for parents to find room for girls in the limited co-educational schools. A push for single-sex education therefore is ‘predicated on outdated, moronic, and destructive gender stereotypes’.
Single-sex schools for women are a natural extension of the feminist movement; there are co-educational schools, men have had their own schools, why should women not? It would still be discrimination if there were only male single-sex schools; as long as both genders are catered for, this discrimination is redressed. The issue in states like India is not there are too many single-sex schools, but that there are not enough. This is more to do with cultural preferences for males, and a population heavily overpopulated with males, than the lingering effects of British colonial rule.
Men always say that they do not understand women, perhaps because they were sent to single sex schools. Research has proved that boys who went to single sex schools as opposed to mixed schools are more likely to get divorced and suffer from depression in their 40. This is proof that we should school our children in mixed schools in order to give them the best bill of emotional health. Dr. Diana Leonard, who presented the findings, concluded that ‘Boys learn better when they are with girls and they actually learn to get on better’.
The positive health effects of single-sex schools pointed out in the same Dr. Leonard study outweigh the emotional distress potentially felt by a minority of divorced men. Regarding the majority, the research found ‘those who stayed together were just as likely to be happy in their relationship as men educated in mixed schools’. As for girls, the findings suggest they ‘seem to learn what the nature of the beast is’ without needing to learn alongside boys, whilst a central finding of the study is that ‘single-sex moderates the effect of gender-stereotyping in terms of choice of field of study’.
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Bronski, M., ‘Single-sex Schools’. Znet, 25 October 2002, http://www.zcommunications.org/single-sex-schools-by-michael-bronski.pdf
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