Single-Sex Schools: “Bad” For Boys And Girls?

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?

Photo courtesy of Geograph.


Ann G.
Ann G8 years ago

I go to a coed school, and I like it just fine. Boys are funny, interesting, and I think they also help keep girls a little grounded, so we don't get lost in our own makeup and gossip worlds. Although I must say I've never been in a single-sex school, so I can't really compare.

Jason B.
Jason B8 years ago

Very interesting article. One key point that was made in the article, although perhaps too quietly, was that the concern about social skills that boys and girls would get in regards to romantic relations (heterosexual ones that is). I think that men and women still have a ways to go in terms of learning how to better relate to one another, understand each other, live together, and work and play together. We all benefit from better cross gender relation skills, not just in terms of romantic or sexual relations, but all relations. I think MORE co-ed activities would be a really good idea, starting early on and continuing throughout high school. Perhaps little boys and girls could learn how to appreciate and respect our differences, AND learn how to better work together in team settings. As for university, I think that should remain a personal choice.
Thanks for sharing

Casey Broughton
Casey Broughton8 years ago

I went to a co-ed school and though I hated it, I would not have changed that aspect of it. It is not good preparation to separate children, it teaches them that segregation is okay. Plus the schools are bound to have differences and then students' education is not equal.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

I went to a co-educational school and even though the boys bullied me quite a lot, because I was fat and ugly, I would have never gone to a single-sex school, because I wanted to go to university and not to spend the rest of my life cooking, knitting, hatcheting, etc.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

Girls have never benefited from single-sex education, because schools for girls taught mostly worthless subjects, such as knitting and cooking in order to prepare the girls for a wife-and-mother role, whereas in boys' and coeducational schools more serious and useful subjects are taught. Now the good news is that boys don't profit from single-sex schools either. Thus, let's do away with single-sex schools completely!

Sarah D.
Sarah D8 years ago

"so the students can get together to do plays or socialise."

How often? Everyday or once or twice a year?

"The students were allowed out of school and socialised normally."

And what is "normal"?

Lilith Graves
Lilith Graves8 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Hayley W.
Hayley W8 years ago

I am a feminist and I am strongly against single-sex schools. In all-boys schools girls and women are seen as nothing more than sex objects, whereas in mixed schools boys can appreciate girls as their peers and get used to working side-by-side with each other. Boys who do not have the opportunity to see the other sex as their equal not only find it difficult to talk to females but find it harder to adjust to working alongside women in the workplace. I'm sure that many sexist office environments may have been contributed to by their all-male education.
Furthermore, segregating males and females sends out the wrong message at this crucial age, it suggests that we are different whereas we are all humans and all equal, so why separate us?
Apparently boys perform marginally better academically when in all-boys schools due to the lack of female distraction, but at the cost of what to their social development and society in general?

Chelsie L.
Chelsie L8 years ago


Ali W.
Ali W8 years ago

The private single sex schools in Britain in my days interacted with a brother or sister school, so the students can get together to do plays or socialise. The students were allowed out of school and socialised normally.
Education was about education.
I think over use of screen-time (Computer and T.V.'s) is more detrimental to some children's socialising skills these days.