Editorial - It's time for the single-sex debate to get sociable

29th November 2013 at 00:00

The `achievement' debate about single-sex versus co-educational schools has already been reheated too many times to make for sensible consumption. The conversation is stagnant. An unbiased view of the research suggests that it doesn't make a lot of difference academically if you go to a single sex school or a co-educational one.

So it is no surprise that the advocates of single-sex education have turned to a new field of battle: the lack of female interest in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. For some, boys are the problem and girls' schools are the answer.

The fuel to this rekindling fire is recent research from the Institute of Physics in the UK. It found that girls at single-sex schools are almost two and a half times more likely to study physics A level than girls who attend co-educational schools.

The leap from this evidence to arguing that boys are the issue is a big one. Countless other contextual factors could be having an impact on the statistic. For example, Dr Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust, has said that how Stem subjects are taught and what content is chosen are key to take-up by girls. Co- educational schools are just as capable of addressing these factors as single-sex schools.

The belief that more single-sex education will lead to more female graduates in Stem is also questionable. A study by the Australian National University found that although "single-sex schooling moderately benefits girls by fostering higher rates of engagement in physical science courses. they are no more likely than girls elsewhere to aspire to careers related to these subjects".

So it is unlikely that Stem will be the route to victory for the single- sex schooling campaign. Perhaps they would be better off targeting the pastoral benefits of single-sex education? Carl Condliffe makes a decent case for approaching the sexes separately when it comes to pastoral care, yet he teaches in a co-educational school and his approach is as applicable there as in a single-sex setting.

A more interesting direction for renewed debate than either Stem or pastoral care would be the social impact of single-sex schooling. Most students will graduate into a world where men and women are expected to work and socialise together, and education should prepare students for that environment. But although some single-sex schools make an effort to create opportunities for co-educational experiences, a large number don't.

This is a problem. How can single-sex students learn to see their gender opposite as equal if their whole school experience emphasises that they are different from them? How can boys and girls learn to work with each other if it is made clear throughout their education that working together is detrimental? Is it not a handicap - not to mention sad - that a child could come out of school never having talked to someone their own age who is a member of the opposite sex?

If we are to have a sensible debate about single-sex education, let's go beyond talk of achievement and the distractions of Stem take-up. Let's discuss the social impact of gender segregation in education. It doesn't get discussed enough and now is a good time for that to change.


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