Is single-sex education still relevant today?

It’s an age-old debate: should girls and boys be taught separately? With statistics appearing to show that girls in single-sex schools get better exam results than those in mixed schools, how can families ensure that they make a decision in their child’s best interests?

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Marymount International School London

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In the UK, there are 214 girls-only independent schools, 163 of which are senior schools compared to 152 boys-only independent schools, 74 of which are senior schools. Single-sex education still remains a popular choice within the independent schools sector, especially for girls.In an interview at the Independent Schools Show 2017 in Battersea Park, head of Heathfield School, Marina Gardiner Legge, addressed some common questions surrounding single-sex education.

Why do parents choose single-sex education?

“I don’t believe that they do,” said Ms Gardiner Legge. “They choose the right school for their child and to do this they take into account many different factors.”Exam results, of course, have their role in influencing the decision but parents have to juggle many factors when making a school choice. These include practical aspects such as the location of the school and the school’s facilities in addition to the quality of the school’s teaching and leadership. A parent’s own school experience will also have a role to play in the decision as will other aspects such as scope for developing a particular talent or interest and pastoral care. Whether a school is single-sex or co-educational will often be at the bottom of the checklist, if at all.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country experts

Do girls get better results at single-sex schools?

If it’s about exam results, girls appear to perform better in single-sex schools, particularly in STEM subjects.“A recent Girls’ Schools Association survey showed that girls were four times as likely to choose Physics in a single-sex school than in a co-ed one,” said Ms Gardiner Legge, “This is because they are much more likely to go for a subject that they’re passionate about as they are not worrying about adhering to strict gender stereotypes.”In terms of the demand for single-sex schools, the number of independent boys’ schools is actually in decline and, increasingly some are starting to admit girls. “It’s about survival and parental demand,” she said. “Schools are increasingly diversifying to meet the demands of parents; if parents have a child at a single-sex school, they may ask if the school would admit siblings regardless of their gender.”This approach does have its pitfalls however, “PSHE is vital – this must be catered for when admitting another gender. It’s important that the school has expertise and resources to meet their needs. Do not underestimate the importance of role models, “ she said.

How do you respond when people say that single-sex schools do not prepare students adequately for the world of work?

Ms Gardiner Legge highlighted the Harvey Weinstein scandal in her response as she discussed gender parity. “Less than a third of the House of Commons are women. Is this what we are preparing girls for? It is more important than ever to raise happy, strong young women which is exactly what single-sex schooling does. Until we have gender parity in the workplace there is absolutely a role for single-sex education,” she said.

Is it important that the school makes provision for mixing with the other sex?

In responding, Ms Gardiner Legge described Heathfield’s intellectual debating partnership with Eton where societies from the two schools come together to discuss hot topics. She said that it was important for boys to see strong, intelligent girls who could hold their own in an intellectual debate.A comment from Lucy Elphinstone, headmistress of Francis Holland School, Sloane Square, leant support for mixing with the other sex. She referred to an interview that she did with The Telegraph in which she explained the importance of girls learning to ‘blag it’. “Sometimes we need to be able to take risks, to be braver, and sometimes to learn how to wing it a bit,” she said.Ms Gardiner Legge also went on to explain the importance of male role models in girls’ schools just as much as in boys’ – Heathfield’s head of boarding is male.

At what age should parents consider single-sex education for their child?

“It is important for children to grow up around the other sex whilst they are young,” said Ms Gardiner Legge. She counselled that co-educational preparatory or state schools are a good option and that, if they have to prioritise, parents should choose fee paying schools when a child is older as that is when the child will reap the most benefits.Ultimately a family will make a decision using the overall school package and whether it is a good fit for their child but single-sex education will continue to exist for as long as exam results prove their worth.
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