'The girls-only school sector stubbornly refuses to die'

In single-sex schools girls are empowered to hold their own in a world that remains unequal, writes Kevin Stannard

Gender equality

Mixing genders in educational settings is now the norm, but the elision of "normal" and "natural" is something that deserves rebuttal.

As society became more equal in gender terms, co-ed came to dominate both school and higher education sectors. Alan Smithers has argued that the widespread emphasis on equality has reduced the need to separate the sexes in school. But the relationship between societal gender relations and educational settings is neither causal nor linear.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel has studied the debates over the admission of women to Ivy League and Oxbridge colleges. The flip to co-education from the mid-1960s coincided with the women’s liberation movement, to be sure, but gender equality was not the principal driver. Yale’s Kingman Brewster admitted, "Our concern is not … what Yale can do for women, but what women can do for Yale." A retired don at Hertford College, Oxford, recalled that, "At no time was anything approaching a feminist argument made." The debate was all about the means of maintaining elite status.

The threatened complete collapse of US women’s colleges in the face of the Ivy League’s admission of women did not occur, in part because of a feminist fight-back led by Gloria Steinem, who argued that the patriarchy’s ideological hold was too strong to give up on women-only schools.

Reform was overdue: in the mid-1960s fewer than 10 per cent of Cambridge undergraduates were female. But opening the doors to women didn’t solve the question of inequality; it simply posed it anew. As Helen McCarthy observed in reviewing Malkiel’s book, parity of numbers masks continuing structural inequalities, manifest, for instance, in the lower share of firsts at Oxbridge, and persistent under-representation in student leadership positions.

Co-ed benefits boys

The same analysis applies, mutatis mutandis, to schools. As a recent Economist article made clear, the advantages of boys’ schools going co-ed seem to accrue exclusively to the boys. In fact, boys benefit in direct proportion to the number of girls in a class. For the girls, on the other hand, the educational advantages remain elusive.

But the appeal to naturalism persists. The headmaster of Eltham College, in a Sunday Times article, conceded that girls and boys learn differently, but still wanted to leave the impression that single-sex settings are somehow behind the times. After all, shouldn’t schools mirror a mixed society?

Schools do reflect society, but often in an unflattering light. Girls remain massively under-represented in science subjects across the country – except in girls’ schools; a very high proportion of girls are still subjected to low-level but persistent sexual harassment; girls in co-ed settings have a greater propensity to opt out of sports activities. Girls tend to be overrepresented as participants in, but underrepresented among the leaders of, extra-curricular clubs and societies. What’s "normal" in these cases is neither natural nor desirable. There is a danger that co-ed contexts simply inscribe societal inequalities and skewed gender stereotypes on to schools. Where such fundamental asymmetries persist, gender blindness is not the same thing as gender equality.

Single-sex schools might no longer be the "norm", but it is quite a stretch to assume, and disingenuous to assert, that they are, therefore, not "natural". Girls’ schools are not there to bubble-wrap the "weaker sex". The history of girls’ schools is one of the assertion of equality, and their purpose is to prepare young women to hold their own in a world that remains stubbornly unequal.

The girls-only school sector stubbornly refuses to die. In parts of the United States, such as New York City and Texas, new single-sex settings are part of a drive to educate and emancipate girls and young women in areas characterised by low income and non-Anglo ethnicity. These schools are not mirrors of society; they are catalysts for social change.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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