Two education articles came out in the Independent today, addressing the issue of single-sex education. The authors of the articles, Lucy Hodgeman and Richard Garner, had rather dire conclusions: Hodgeman wrote of the “perils” of single-sex education, citing the example of her daughter, who was educated in all-girls schools in London, and Garner had, if possible, more dramatic news. A new study, to be published tomorrow, apparently reveals that men educated in single-sex schools are more likely to “face divorce and depression by their early 40s.”
Both articles seem shockingly extreme in their conclusions to me, although I do acknowledge that I attended American coed public schools growing up (and I am now enrolled in a coed private university), and thus do not fully understand the British educational system, which has a longer tradition of elite single-sex education. I did, however, seriously consider attending a women’s university, and have been following the American debate over single-sex public schools with interest.
Proponents of single-sex education point to supposed cognitive differences which mean that boys and girls learn differently. Some feminists also support single-sex education, saying that coed education contributes to girls’ low self-esteem during puberty and provides subtle social pressures that discourage girls from succeeding in math and science. Others, pointing to the fact that there are twice as many girls as boys on high-school honor rolls, say that boys are the ones who are really suffering.
Now Garner and Hodgeman are articulating the other side. Hodgeman, speaking mostly from personal experience, concludes that for her daughter, single-sex education was “worthy and diligent but ultimately dull.” Garner cites the new study, which claims that “all the research shows single-sex schools are good for girls but bad for boys – both in terms of academic performance and socialisation.” Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, claims that “Girls seem to learn what the nature of the beast is if they have been to single sex schools whereas boys taught on their own seem to find girls more puzzling.”
My fundamental problem with these two approaches is that they seem to be tackling different issues. Garner and Hodgeman worry about socialization in what seems to be a heterosexual context – basically, they wonder whether girls and boys will learn to interact well as men and women, presumably in some kind of romantic context. Hodgeman laments the lack of men in her daughter’s educational career, saying that they would have added “spice and interest” to her daughter’s high school years (although really, do girls need men to do that for them? And what does that say about our expectations for girls?). And the findings from this new study have fueled claims that “boys brought up in a single-sex environment are less able to relate to the opposite sex than those taught in a co-educational school.”
The issues raised by advocates for single-sex schools are different. Women’s rights advocates tout them as good places for girls to learn self-esteem, and the arguments about different learning styles certainly don’t have to do with how boys and girls interact – it’s how they process information. The problem, it seems to me, that we’re trying to separate children’s academic and social lives, which are inextricably intertwined.
I don’t have a good solution for the “problem” of single-sex or coed schooling, although my first instinct is to shy away from social institutions that further reinforce a gender binary. But my real question is, why do we feel the need to make sweeping statements about what is good for all girls and all boys? Some children may thrive in a coed environment; others may want to attend single-sex school for a few years and then move to coed education. The idea that we can break down what is good for everyone and “solve” the problem of children’s interactions and education seems pretty pointless and naive.
What do you think? Did you go to a coed or single-sex school, and what were your experiences?
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