Single sex schools

Around here, one of the common topics of conversation among the parent community is, “where are you going to send your kids to high school?” We genuinely have no idea. Our options are made much more complex by the fact that all of the six high schools within walking distance of our house (two public, four private) are single sex.

When I talk about not wanting to send my boys to a single sex school, most parents are surprised that I would care. My reasoning is almost entirely about socialisation – I know enough people who found it very hard to talk normally to members of the opposite sex once they got out of their segregated environment to know how much the experience can (doesn’t always, of course!) damage your social life. My mother is a good example – she’s told me often enough how hard she found it to go from a girls school to doing first year science at university – one of 4 women in classes of 150. That’s obviously extreme, but I imagine she would have found it easier to cope if she’d be learning alongside boys in her highschool also.

Most of the reading I’ve done on the topic (a while ago) suggested that girls should go to single sex schools, so they didn’t get oppressed by boys who would stifle their willingness to speak up and learn in a classroom, and boys should go to co-ed schools so that the girls would calm them down and create a better learning environment. Hard to know where to find those girls willing to sacrifice themselves for the boys, though.

But a recent article in New York Magazine suggested that I’m way behind the times. These days, there is a whole industry in explaining just how differently boys and girls learn, and how important it is to provide a learning environment that caters separately to boys and girls. Many of the most exclusive Sydney private schools have bought into this – here’s one example.

But the New York Magazine article points out, gently but firmly, how methods based on averages fail to take account of the enormous distribution in attributes of both sexes. Even if boys, on average, hear slightly worse than girls (a hypothesis based on one very small study) – the range of hearing levels in boys and girls suggests that if you take an individual boy and girl, you chances are pretty close to even that the boy will have better hearing than the girl. Similarly for a whole set of learning attributes – boys are popularly supposed to learn better using visual spatial clues – but many girls will also.

So an educational philosophy that is based on separating out children using gender as a guide to learning styles is likely to misclassify many of them.

But the most interesting aspect of the New Yorker article, for me, is that the differences in results, if they even exist, are very small for middle to upper class children like mine. If single sex schools or classes make a difference, they generally only make a difference for children who are struggling. (which makes me sceptical about the effect – most children who are struggling will do better if teachers and a school care enough to try radical options, mostly because the teachers and the school are engaged, not so much because of the radical options). And in most contexts (at least in Australia) those struggling children are least likely to have any radical options available to them – their local state school will be it.

  9 comments for “Single sex schools

  1. March 6, 2008 at 7:57 am

    The first reaction is instant agreement.

    One caveat: a very limited acquaintance with anthropology suggests that the same societies that raise children running wild in the village often separate the sexes during the years of adolescence.

    I am not sure I am game to generalise from that – or to say we have moved on from that sort of society!

  2. March 6, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    I see the “It’s not real life” argument, and I’m not quite sure that it stands alone. Age grading is nothing like real life, nor is choosing your friends on the basis that they live within a few blocks from you, but these aspects of standardised schooling seem to be well accepted without a significant protest.

    I don’t embrace single-sex education necessarily, but I can’t use “it’s not real life” as my one and only argument. I think I’m a bit more concerned for those on the margins: transgender and intersex kids, kids who don’t conform to traditional gender roles in other ways, stereotyping, that sort of thing.

  3. March 6, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Sax, the expert quoted so heavily in that article is dubious at best.

    See this post here:

    and especially the links at the bottom.

    Basically, his claims about sex differences are not borne out by research.

  4. March 6, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    I agree that school is “not real life” in many ways, but there are real disadvantages to single sex schools in learning to talk to people of the opposite sex that never even seem to get mentioned in these discussions.

  5. Andrew
    March 7, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    I went to a single-sex high school, and I wouldn’t want to send a son of mine to one, for exactly the reason you mention. My sample size is pretty small, and biassed towards engineers (who are notorious for this anyway); but then again, my son would also have half my genes and be subject to my pernicious influence.

    There’s a lot to learn in those years, and academia is far from all of it. But how “single-sex” balances off against the standard of the school (selective vs non-selective, religious or not, private or not)… I have no idea.

    A civilized atmosphere may be much more important than who’s there.

  6. JenniferV
    March 7, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    I’m with lauredhel, on her second point if not her first. My first thought when I was reading the linked article was “what if you’re a boy who doesn’t like drawing cars or a girl who ISN’T afraid of snakes?” That particular system of single sex education just seems to play into existing narrow stereotypes of “boyness” and “girlness”.

  7. March 12, 2008 at 10:12 am

    How to lie with statistics – I’ve learned the same thing on my course about recruitment techniques – the degree of predictability that someone with such and such a psychometric rating will achieve such and such a thing is actually so much less than the variation in everyday human behaviour, it’s of very little value. But people do love their short cuts!

    I think I probably would have done better in an a mixed school – but then as someone who loathed all the standard ‘boys’ things (it was a school boy rugby international generating machine), I probably would have done better in a single sex girls school!

  8. October 2, 2008 at 8:34 am

    I have mixed feelings about this issue. Having had a horrendous experience in a mixed-sex high school, because I was a ‘quiet’ girls, and even put in a class of ‘roudy’ boys to quiet them down, which ended up being a complete disaster. I always vowed I would send my daughter, Possum to a single sex high school.

    But, after attending a gender seminar for a week, I changed my mind. It is not necessarily beneficial to group according to gender, just as I am against academic streaming. I think was we need to focus on is finding the right school for your child, gender aside… Saying this, if a single sex school ends up being the best choice, then go for it. But I say shop around for quality and suitability rather than private or gendered schools.

  9. Akuma
    May 12, 2010 at 6:31 am

    I love coed because it help the student in many ways and also when it comes 2 the career world

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