If there’s one debate in education that can knock the state vs private debate off its educational perch, it’s the pros and cons of single sex schools. Do all-boys schools breed hyper masculine behaviour? Are all-girls schools really the key to acing every single GCSE?
Only 6% of schools in England are now single sex after the great ‘go comp’ shift of the 1970s but a high percentage of parents struggle when faced with the choice. Many of us get caught between two negative perceptions. The first is that a mixed education is hampered by distractions of the opposite sex. The second is that single sex schools are not reflective of the modern working world.
The decision isn’t helped by the fact there are passionate advocates armed with compelling arguments in both camps. Fans of single sex schools say they offer a more focused teaching style (e.g. shorter lessons for boys), less preconceptions about gender typical subjects (girls are 2.5 times more likely to study Physics A level in an all-girls school) and exam results are better. Team co-ed claims that mixed schools do more to nurture emotional and social development; offer a softer culture more conducive to learning; and the daily interaction between boys and girls levels out some of the less desirable aspects of both.
But what does the black and white data say on the issue of pink or blue? It’s no coincidence that the case for single sex schools usually resurfaces at the same time as exam results. Headlines claim girls have outperformed boys – again – and all-boys and all-girls schools dominate the league tables. However, many are highly academically selective and if we factor in prior attainment, there’s often very little in it. Yes, there is evidence that girls are quicker out of the attainment blocks: in 2019 (the last official data before exams were cancelled), girls outperformed boys at age 11 in SATs exams by 8%. But look at results for 18 year olds in the same year and girls achieved 25.5% A* or A grades at A level, compared to 25.4% for boys. It's the classroom equivalent of ‘there’s nothing to see here, folks, move on’.
However, many head teachers in single sex schools say that top grades are only one part of the picture, and their pupils actually get a more rounded education. “Without a doubt, the most important benefit of an all-girls education is character formation – allowing girls to find their voice and their confidence in their own time and at their own pace,” says Kate Reynolds, Head of the Royal High School Bath. “This enables girls to learn without limits and influences their outlook on the world beyond school so that they can go on to live their life without limits.”
And what about the criticism that a single sex school is not reflective of the modern working world? “You couldn’t be further from the truth,” adds Kate Reynolds. “Talk to admissions tutors in some of our top universities and they will tell you that they can spot a student from an all-girls’ school. They are the ones who will speak up, contribute to tutorials and debates, have the confidence to have their voice heard. Why? Because this is what they have grown up doing in an all-girls’ environment that has nurtured their confidence, self-belief and worth. Of course co-educational schools do the same but research shows, time after time, how students in co-ed settings revert to gender stereotypes whereas in all-girls’ schools everything provided is for the girls. They have to get involved or clubs, activities, challenges will not run and, in my experience, that is exactly what they do including more introverted or quirky girls who might otherwise get overlooked.”
Talk to admissions tutors in some of our top universities and they will tell you that they can spot a student from an all-girls’ school. They are the ones who will speak up, contribute to tutorials and debates, have the confidence to have their voice heard.
Kate Reynolds, Head, Royal High School Bath
So how do we decide which is best? There may be a clue in the rise of so-called Diamond schools, which are on the up across the UK and education experts say offer the best of both worlds. These schools educate boys and girls together in the early years, separately at 11-16 when the hormones are raging and there are key exams to pass, then together again from 16-18, the sixth form, when they are preparing pupils for university and the big wide world. It’s no coincidence that many single-sex schools have co-ed sixth forms for the same reason.
Ultimately, however, in a post-pandemic era when we are all putting a greater emphasis on pupil wellbeing, my advice would be to look at the bigger picture and decide if you like the feel and focus of the school – regardless of type. Are the kids nice? Will your son and daughter find their tribe?
Matthew Way, Head of Stonar School, a co-ed school in Wiltshire, agrees:
"I'm not sure that single sex v co-ed is the right question or that useful when choosing a school for your child. Arguments on both sides of the debate focus on what limits a young person's agency and development and so, much more important, is to find a school where the ethos and culture allows your child to be themselves."