Are boys really being left behind in mixed-sex schools?

Francis Gilbert's picture
In recent weeks, a number of private school headteachers have been leading a campaign to create more single-sex schools. Heads at the City of London Boys' School and Eton have both said that boys are being failed in mixed-sex schools and can't cope emotionally in them.

Research conducted some years ago by Professor Alan Smithers says that single-sex schools makes very little difference to boys' results. Indeed significant research undertaken by the Institute of Education suggests that single-sex education is bad for your health if you're a boy, with men feeling the negative after-effects of their single-sex education for the rest of their lives.

This certainly mirrors my own experience both as a pupil and a teacher. I don't think I benefitted from attending an all-boys' school as a teenager and I certainly think that the pupils I've taught in single-sex schools have missed out on interacting with the opposite sex in a variety of situations. It's not just about results, it's about socialisation as well; segregating the sexes is not going help men and women get along.

It begs the question as to why the private school bosses are suddenly talking about the issue when no significant new research has been produced to change the debate. I spoke about the issue with David Levin, the head of City of London Boys' School, on Radio London over the weekend. He was evangelical about massively extending single-sex schools in the state sector but had no strong arguments other than teachers can more easily adapt their teaching styles in single-sex classrooms. He promoted the stereotype that boys love competitions and "kinaesthetic" learning -- as opposed to girls. Again there is no firm evidence for this. Generalising about a whole gender woefully misses the mark in my view. The interviewer embarrassed him because Levin brought up the fact that he is a South African and that boys are suffering a great deal in South Africa's mixed sex schools, to which the interviewer retorted with the question: is "gender apartheid" a real solution to boys' under-achievement?

Are these private school heads trying to soften up the public for a new chain of single-sex free schools?
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


botzarelli's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 12:53

"Are these private school heads trying to soften up the public for a new chain of single-sex free schools?"

So what if they are? If you're opposed to free schools, it doesn't really matter whether they are single sex or mixed sex, they are still wrong. If single sex schools are, as you say the research suggests, worse for boys, they aren't likely to be very much of a threat to mixed sex schools in their areas. At worst, they will be chosen by the sorts of parents who want choice but end up holding their children back compared to those whose parents were either disinterested in making a choice or who believed strongly in mixed education. So there will be no unfair advantage to those single-sex schools. If on the other hand, they do a better job than is currently done by local mixed schools how do they hurt the schools which are doing exactly what you think is right and with a cohort of students and parents who agree with you?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 15:20

A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement asked “Is it all over for boys’ schools? The feature said that fewer than 5% of schools in the 25th Anniversary edition of the Good Schools Guide were independent boys’ senior schools, compared with 24% in the 1986 edition. The Guide's senior editor said, “I think society has changed. Looking for a boys-only school is seen as a bit old-fashioned.” However, not all boys’ school heads agree. The head of St James Senior Boys’ School in Surrey said that boys’ schools have a distinctive ethos: boys do better academically when not having to compete with girls, boys have different learning styles to girls, and boys are better able to develop “virtues of courage and strength and uprightness” in a male-only environment. Nevertheless, many boys’ schools now take girls because girls are believed to boost a school’s league table position, while other heads think that co-ed is better for children’s social development.

The evangelical head described by Francis is unlikely to create a greater demand for single-sex schools if parents realise that offering their child a particular learning style based only on gender might not suit the child, and that there are social disadvantages in separating the sexes. Unfortunately, there is a trend at the moment to pigeon-hole girls and boys into particular roles. Francis mentioned this in his thread about children’s books. Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times (16 July 2011) wrote how annoyed she had been when sent two books for review – one with activities for boys and another with activities for girls. Why, she asked, couldn’t all the activities be put in one book? It would be damaging for both sexes if this harmful belief in separate activities for girls and boys is used to establish schools ready to exploit this gender stereotyping.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 17:55

I can see your point; the market will decide whether the school will run or not. If boys' schools are not very popular with parents, they'll disappear. I suppose this is an interesting case of whether the market is appropriate to decide; if we, as a society, know that boys' schools don't work, then perhaps there has to be a bit of more of a "nanny" state which decides it's not appropriate for the taxpayer to fund them. Personally, if free schools can help all children in an area raise their levels of achievement, I'm not opposed to them but there has to be tight regulation.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 17:56

I should declare an interest here, I'm married to Erica! And yes, of course, I think she's right; it's worrying when we start stereotyping boys and girls.

botzarelli's picture
Tue, 19/07/2011 - 08:04

I think the risk of chains of single-sex schools opening up is pretty small - as Janet says, the trend is towards mixed education even in the independent sector at schools which were traditionally single-sex. There may still be some demand for single-sex schools and I don't see a problem with demand-led foundation of single-sex schools. I'm not sure however that we do "know" that single sex schools don't work, just that they are not as popular as they used to be - what is popular and what works are not always the same thing - so I don't believe we're in a position to say "society has worked out that this is bad so nanny state needs to stop it".

It is possible that interesting hybrids might arise. For example, numerous single-sex independent schools have moved to being mixed to the end of KS2, then having single-sex teaching up to GCSE and mixed teaching at Sixth Form but with drama and other non-academic parts of the day mixed throughout. This could in theory provide the opportunity to have more tailored learning environments for individual pupils while not cutting off the chances for broader social development.

This would be hard to achieve as a model if one were starting from a mixed comprehensive (eg the dramatisation in Waterloo Road of the rather desperate and hare brained introduction of separate classes for boys and girls without any consultation with anyone) but could be achievable by a pair of start up free schools.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.