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Single-sex schools: a successful anachronism?

The commonly held belief that single-sex schooling is outdated obscures its advantages, argues this teacher

Many view single-sex schools as dinosaurs - but they are ignoring the benefits of this kind of education, says Gordon Cairns

The commonly held belief that single-sex schooling is outdated obscures its advantages, argues this teacher

How's this for a dilemma? A parents' group is campaigning to send its sons to a flourishing local school. If it succeeds, however, the performance of the school could be impaired.

This is the frequently recurring conundrum that surrounds Notre Dame High School in the West End of Glasgow, as successive groups of parents whose sons go to a feeder primary challenge the council to change the entry requirements of Scotland's last remaining state-run girls’ school.

Single-sex schools might sound like an anachronism left over from the Victorians, not fit for purpose in the 21st century – but the uncomfortable truth is that they work. For girls anyway. Again and again, studies have backed this up. In 2016, for example, education data analysts SchoolDash looked at GCSE results, and found that girls in these schools were doing better than their co-ed sisters, even after taking into account other factors such as the high number of single-sex grammar schools.

It is not just how these pupils perform in exams, though. Former US first lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let Girls Learn” global campaign at Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, East London, and praised the school for its inspirational qualities as well as its ability to instil confidence in its female cohort. It seems shortsighted, to say the least, to attempt to alter the DNA of its only state-run equivalent in Scotland, when there are a number of good alternatives nearby.


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As further research into the brain reveals more details about how we learn, it becomes clear that different genders learn differently. With the number of single-gender schools falling to a fraction of what it was just a few decades ago, the slow erosion of these institutions might not be as forward-thinking as first thought. The majority of the remaining schools are in the private sector, where, I imagine, financial concerns have not forced them to maximise capacity as has occurred in the state sector.

The positive impact of single-sex schools

Learning in an environment where the brain is not imbalanced by hormonal urges to impress the opposite sex by being too cool to try in class, or is distracted by juvenile antics, has to be an advantage. And, unfortunately, teachers are not immune to male favouritism, even at a subconscious level. While boys are more likely to call out an answer in the classroom, the teacher is more likely to accept their answer than a girl shouting out who would typically be told to raise her hand. Boys also tend to receive more praise than their female counterparts.

The Victorian era may well deserve its reputation for being a repressive society – but the Victorians did actually get some things right. The practice of separating boys and girls at school might have been instigated for reasons of moral prurience, but the by-product has been to create environments that allow girls to achieve their potential.

A progressive government, therefore, might actually think about expanding single-sex provision, offering this choice to far more girls and boys across the country.

Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland

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