A single sex or mixed education?

For many years, and in many countries around the world, parents have wondered whether a coeducational (mixed) school or a single-sex school is the best option for their children.

Below is an extract from this article published in Relocate's Guide to International Education & Schools 2017. Click below if you are interested in receiving a full printed copy of the guide.

If you ask a group of parents for their views on mixed and single-sex education, you are bound to hear some strongly felt arguments for and against both systems. But should gender cohort really be the deciding factor in choosing a school, or should parents be looking more broadly at a school’s background, ethos and character?

Historical context

Until the end of the 18th century, single-sex education was commonplace around the world. During the 19th century, more and more coeducational schools were set up.In many countries, single-sex education has almost vanished, but there are some countries, such as the UK, where it is still a viable option, depending on where you live.In other countries, particularly in Asia, single-sex education has prospered as the result of religious and cultural beliefs rather than the idea that students perform better if the sexes are segregated.Most educational experts agree that boys and girls have different learning needs. “Girls and boys mature at different rates, so, in a learning environment, it makes sense to give both girls and boys what they need at each varying stage in their development,” explains Antonia Beary, headmistress of Mayfield, a girls’ independent day and boarding school in East Sussex.“Does one size fit all?” asks Ms Beary. “I don’t think so. It is a generalisation, but one with much truth: girls and boys predominantly learn in different ways – not better, not worse, but differently. We ought to be celebrating these differences and the complementary nature of different genders, not trying to pretend that everyone is the same and requires the same challenges and support.”[…]
Mayfield School

Examining the evidence

So is there sufficient evidence to suggest that both sexes will do better without the other to distract them?Unfortunately, looking at statistics doesn’t help us to form a clear picture. “There is no game-changing evidence,” says Sarah Thomas, head of Bryanston, a coeducational day and boarding school in Dorset. “You’re not going to be able to solve this conundrum simply by looking at statistics.“There are statistics, of course, and some of them show that single-sex schools get better exam results. But a third of single-sex schools are grammar schools, and 60 per cent of single-sex schools are in the independent sector. In other words, it’s complicated. Personally speaking, I’m about as convinced by that sort of statistical evidence as I am by the average toothpaste commercial.”

Personal experience

Are we, then, influenced by our own experiences? If parents attended a single-sex school, are they more likely to favour a single-sex education for their children? If parents had a bad experience at a single-sex school, are they more likely to favour a coeducational environment for their offspring?“As a head,” says Sarah Thomas, “I hear lots of reasons why parents prefer single sex. Here’s one. ‘It reminds me of my own childhood. My daughter will go to a single-sex school because I did and it didn’t do me any harm’.“That’s fine, but I wonder how many decisions people are prepared to make on the basis of what their parents did 20 or 30 years ago.”[…] 
Denstone College

The right school

Maybe the question should be not about the gender cohort of the school but about the character and ethos of the school. “In my view, belonging is the thing that matters most when you’re thinking about choosing a school for your child,” says Sarah Thomas.Elizabeth Hewer, headmistress of St George’s Ascot, an all-girls day and boarding school in Berkshire, agrees. “Schools are all remarkably similar in some respects: we all teach maths, we all teach English, we all do sports, we all do music, we all do drama. You will read many websites that say ‘we educate the whole child, it’s about an all-round education’, and I’m sure that parents see many of these mantras time and time again. And therefore I think that what is most important for parents is identifying what makes each school different.“One of the things that we are is an all-girls school. And that goes some way to explaining and describing the environment in which we are, but of course it’s one of many things, and it can be quite dangerous and misleading to group schools into single sex and coed.”[…]

Fulfilling potential

Frances King, head of Mill Hill, a coeducational day and boarding school in North London, has experience of running both single-sex and coeducational schools. “The key issue that comes to my mind regarding the question of gender,” she says, “is how well the school is run. Schools come in many shapes, sizes and combinations, but each institution will want to make sure that every child is welcomed and given ample opportunity to fulfil his or her potential.” […]Access hundreds of global services and suppliers in our Online Directory  Get access to our free Global Mobility Toolkit

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