Sex and the single school

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Dividing girls and boys may be the best way to give equality of opportunity to poorer students. Michael Duffy on a controversial new study

Same, Different, Equal: rethinking single-sex schooling

By Rosemary C Salomone

Yale University Press pound;22.50

Rosemary Salomone's powerful analysis of the pros and cons of single-sex schooling opens impressionistically in Harlem, New York. Here, in 1996, the school district set up the Young Women's Leadership School, the city's first girls-only public secondary school. There are 365 students, all African-American or Hispanic and all selected. They wear simple uniform and no jewellery, and all take maths and science to college-entry level. A Barbie doll hangs from a classroom ceiling, mute testimony to students'

views of the American Woman. Everyone, from the principal down, is addressed by first name. The school is, says Dr Salomone, "an oasis of excellence and hope in a desert of poverty, crime and despair".

It is also, for reasons central to her closely argued thesis, intensely controversial. Publicly funded education in the United States has always been co-educational: the few single-sex schools that remain are usually old foundations, paired by gender, and highly selective. Co-education, she says, is deeply ingrained in the American social psyche - so deeply, indeed, that "we demand far more of it than we do from other educational approaches".

And inevitably, co-education is an intensely powerful element in the politics of ethnicity and gender. The 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation of schools by race or colour did even more than that. By striking down the defence that educational provision could be "separate but equal", it appeared to write the principle of co-education into the Constitution. Under its banner, civil liberties groups and feminists campaigned passionately against any sort of discrimination.

There were two great landmarks in this campaign. In 1970 Congress passed Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting federal financial assistance to any educational programme that excluded participation on gender grounds - a powerful weapon in a country where education is the preserve of the individual state. And in 1996, in a hammer blow, the Supreme Court ruled that the men-only rule at the prestigious Virginia Military Institute - the Sandhurst of the South - was illegal.

Dr Salomone spends some time on the detail of these events, and the latter makes, for non-American readers, a gripping story. The first of her concerns, closely argued, is that neither the statute nor the judgment support, in their detail, the absolute prohibition on publicly funded single-sex education that the National Association of Women had demanded and is (as with the Young Women's Leadership School) demanding still.

The second concern, and the core of Dr Salomone's argument, is more familiar to UK readers. Given what we now know about the various ways in which individual children learn or do not learn, she says, and given the growing interest in single-sex education in the private and pseudo-private sectors (in the movement to inner-city charter schools, for instance), it simply makes no sense to rule out specific provision for specific needs.

She recapitulates the now familiar statistics: in the US, as elsewhere in the western world, there is an unmistakable gap, with girls overtaking boys in almost all curriculum areas except IT and mathematics. She stresses, too, the importance of context. Nurture, in the shape of societal expectations and prejudices, is of course a major factor, but so, she says - in a conclusion that splits the feminist movement down the middle - is nature. When it comes to learning, part of the difference is down to gender.

But it is race, culture and social class - all indissolubly connected - that, she argues, make the biggest difference, and existing school provision is hardly denting it. She quotes from the USNational Centre for Educational Statistics, which tells us that almost a third of children in US public schools are African-American or Hispanic; in 15 years, it will be two-thirds. The number of these children living in impoverished neighbourhoods (97 per cent in Washington DC, 86 per cent in Detroit) has risen to "staggering levels". A quarter will drop out of school. Among the males, almost 15 per cent will serve time in jail: there are more African-Americans in prison than there are in higher education. Among the girls, a million a year will become pregnant. "One size fits all" education (a familiar theme in the UK, too) clearly is not working.

Dr Salomone's conclusion is straightforward. Given what we know about gender, schooling and child and adolescent development, "it defies reason for government to mandate co-education for all students enrolled in public schools". For at least some students, she says, the evidence indicates a need for an emotional safe haven, apart from the other sex, for at least some of their education, "whether in separate classes, or completely separate schools". In other words, the Harlem model.

But does the evidence indicate that? The final section of her argument summarises the relevant research from the US and elsewhere. As she points out, it is seldom wholly convincing. Sometimes it compares students from selective or independent schools with those from the public sector; sometimes it compares results between national or cultural contexts; rarely does it take in-school differences among students into account. It is often anecdotal. As far as the possible benefits to girls are concerned, the best she can say is that the findings have been mildly supportive.

But there does seem to be evidence, she says, that boys may benefit, and that both boys and girls in single-sex classes develop more positive attitudes towards traditionally male or female subjects. And, crucially, there is a growing body of data pointing to the academic and social benefits that disadvantaged minority students may derive from single-sex programmes.

It has to be said that some evidence she cites runs counter to this finding. The message from the marketplace is unclear, too. As in the UK, some parents want single-sex education for their daughters and co-education for their sons - an indication that in the United States, as here, "parental choice" is not necessarily the magic wand the marketers claim.

Schools designed for learning might prove just as effective. For all that, this is an important, balanced and thought-provoking book: everyone concerned about inequalities in our schools and our society should want to read it. And its conclusion can't be faulted. For various groups in society, we have moved from "same is equal" to "different is equal" to "more is equal". Why, Dr Salomone asks, should gender be any different?

The Issue in Friday magazine on March 12 will focus on gender differences in learning

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