Is there still a place for single-sex schools?

For some, single-sex schools are centres of excellence. For others, they entrench sexual stereotypes and gender inequality. Sifting through centuries of debate, girls’ school deputy head David James ponders the future of this approach in a society that is increasingly progressive, meritocratic and diverse
26th March 2021, 12:05am
Do Single-sex Schools Have A Future?
David James


Is there still a place for single-sex schools?

Winchester College's recent decision to admit girls into its sixth form from 2022 came after 122 years of discussion (which the headteacher, Tim Hands, drily described as "speedy for us" ).

It made headlines around the world but also raised some questions. Most obviously: what does it say about us that, even during a pandemic, an event as seemingly unimportant as a change in the internal admissions policy of a school that charges tens of thousands of pounds a year can result in acrimonious online debate, and generate news stories in tabloids and broadsheets alike?

No doubt the familiar provocations of class and elitism play into much of the confected outrage. But deeper than this is the perennial debate about single-sex schools.

For many, these schools are a hot-button issue: they are institutions that perpetuate, at best, misunderstanding and, at worst, bigotry. But, for others, they are places of pastoral and academic excellence, which allow their pupils to flourish as themselves rather than being defined - and perhaps reduced - by the opposite sex.

Most schools are co-educational and there are many who resort to the old adage that, because life is "co-ed", so must schools be. But just because something trips off the tongue neatly, and seems to provide a quick answer to endless complex questions, that does not necessarily mean it is right, or right for all occasions or in each community.

Do single-sex schools have a future?

How many of those condemning the very existence of single-sex schools in the home counties would seek to close down, for instance, Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School in Blackburn, which empowers its students to make outstanding progress and achieve excellent academic results?

The more an issue becomes politicised, the more divisive it becomes, and the more complex it appears to be to all those who are not deeply invested in it. Such, undoubtedly, is the case with gender and education today.

The education of girls and boys is an ancient and familiar area of controversy. Many would agree with Baroness Hale of Richmond, who recently observed that single-sex education should be compulsory for girls but forbidden for boys. This is a witty and familiar articulation of inverted prejudice that sees co-education as an essential, civilising process for boys, rather than something that benefits girls. Removing the male gaze, albeit only for a few hours each day, is an appealing prospect for a lot of parents and their daughters, especially in the context of today's almost relentless online sexualisation.

After more than 20 years of teaching in co-educational schools, I am now in my first year in a girls' school. I have found that single-sex education allows space for the students to focus on themselves and on learning, and to not be forcibly reminded of appearance or image.

This does not mean, of course, that preconceptions about gender melt away, or that children are entirely insulated from the prejudices and myths associated with the constructions of masculinity or femininity.

But single-sex schools can allow these incipient influences to be kept at bay and for energy to be diverted elsewhere.

Or, as Jenny Brown, the headteacher of City of London School for Girls, puts it: "This is going to sound paradoxical but, nonetheless, it is only from escaping oneself by immersing into knowledge - and learning about what is bigger, brighter, better than oneself - that one can, in fact, truly find oneself and work out what on earth you are to do and become."

Experts and non-experts alike have long argued over whether there are innate differences between the sexes, which necessitate different approaches to teaching them, as well as different areas of interest to engage them. Some ascribe (or project) different characteristics to girls and boys for a number of reasons: some are personal, some political, or religious or social, and many, in different ways, attempt to justify themselves with evidence. Meanwhile, many approaches are self-serving, trotted out to sustain other, wider and often prejudiced views of human interaction.

A simple phenomenon

How much of what is argued about is true? It is difficult to say because it appears almost impossible to be both objective and specialist in such a complex and emotive area.

In an 1810 review of a tome entitled Advice to Young Ladies on the Improvement of the Mind, the philosopher Sydney Smith wrote: "A great deal has been said of the original difference of capacity between men and women...As long as boys and girls run about in the dirt, and trundle hoops together, they are both precisely alike.

"If you catch up one half of these creatures, and train them to a particular set of actions and opinions, and the other half to a perfectly opposite set, of course their understandings will differ, as one or the other sort of occupations has called this or that talent into action. There is surely no occasion to go into any deeper or more abstruse reasoning in order to explain so very simple a phenomenon."

But this apparently simple phenomenon of nurture dominating (and explaining) nature continues to be debated everywhere, from social media to daytime television studios, in schools and in universities.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, has recently written that "the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems".

Such views would be vociferously supported by the readers who, in the past, enthused about Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, or who, today, dog-ear pages in Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life.

And, indeed, sexual stereotypes stubbornly persist in even the most liberal and progressive societies, with damaging consequences for both sexes. As psychologist Cordelia Fine reminds us in Delusions of Gender: "Automatic associations of the categories 'male' and 'female' are not a few flimsy strands linked to 'penis' and 'vagina'. Measures of implicit associations reveal that men, more than women, are implicitly associated with science, maths, career, hierarchy and high authority. In contrast, women, more than men, are implicitly associated with the liberal arts, family and domesticity, egalitarianism and low authority."

All of which could be an argument for co-educational schooling. Give a girl the same opportunities as a boy in a non-selective school, teach them the same subjects in the same way, and we will, presumably, stand a better chance of establishing a truly meritocratic society: some will succeed and some won't, but any differences will be evened out across a diverse and full curriculum. And such differences, rather than being exacerbated in a single-sex school, will be reduced by exposure to the opposite sex and their innate differences. Hopefully (the argument goes) their strengths will be observed and emulated, their weaknesses compensated for by reflection and improvement from all, including themselves. Or, as Maria Grey and Emily Shirreff, the founders of the Girls' Day School Trust, wrote in 1872, it is essential that girls widen the scope of their interests in order to begin not only to meet their own ambitions but also to fully understand those around them.

"When [women] learn to extend their sympathies beyond the drawing-room or the nursery, to all that affects the wellbeing of their fellow-creatures," they wrote, "when the treasures of knowledge are opened to them with all the wonders of the past and the hopes of the future, and they are able to take an interest in all that is worthy to excite the interest of rational beings; when they study and appreciate their own position as affecting, and affected by, wide social relations, and perceive the magnitude and importance of the duties it imposes, they will feel that the trammels which seem hopelessly to fetter them are in great measure removed, and that the narrowness of the outer existence cannot, in active minds, confine the free life of thought and feeling."

The Girls' Day School Trust and other early pioneering girls' schools in England (including Cheltenham Ladies' College, North London Collegiate School, Lady Eleanor Holles, Roedean and James Allen's Girls' School) were established to provide a full education in a broad, challenging, curriculum - equal to that of boys - as part of the political and social fight for female equality.

You could, however, argue that this struggle for equality has been largely achieved, with girls outperforming boys at every educational stage in this country.

So, should boys and girls be educated differently in the 21st century? Perhaps such a question could become obsolete - or at least anachronistic - not only because many of the divisions between the sexes have been rendered either redundant or illegal but because today's young people increasingly see gender as something unfixed; a spectrum that incorporates a variety of identities. Male and female are just two of the various component parts.

Into a new era

For some commentators, dividing education along male-female lines represents a sexual apartheid in schools. For those such as US psychologist Diane Halpern, not only do single-sex schools offer no advantages but they risk enforcing sexual stereotypes and sexist views in those who attend them.

Such claims are difficult to prove. Prejudices may be expressed in school, or later in life, but they may not originate in those classrooms and corridors. It is equally difficult to verify the various studies claiming that girls educated in single-sex schools do better than their male peers in similar establishments: there are too many variables, including wider social and family contexts, contributing to such outcomes.

Single-sex schools met a historical need, but how prepared are they now for the more meritocratic, diverse and progressive societies in which they often exist?

Perhaps that question is tendentious because we surely have not yet reached the stage when the absence that has characterised much of female history has been superseded by a new, full and equal distribution of influence; where women's voices are not only heard alongside men's but have the same degree of autonomy and agency. There remains a vital difference between speaking and being heard. True equality still seems a long way off, regardless of how many A levels and degrees women obtain.

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being…She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential."

How much has changed since then? Perhaps it is cosmetic. When a boys' school announces that it will accept girls, it is the continuation of a familiar narrative: an old story of girls and women being given permission to enter, of being added to the male rather than existing autonomously. That script still needs to change - and our schools can create the authors of the future who will help to write it.

David James is deputy head of Lady Eleanor Holles School, a girls' school in London

This article originally appeared in the 26 March 2021 issue under the headline "Battleground of the sexes"

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