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Single Sex versus Co-educational Schools

Which is best?

In the UK, the majority of schools are co-educational (co-ed), but there are still a significant number of single sex schools, particularly in the boarding sector and in all-through schools.

Historically, a number of the very famous public schools, some of which are over 300 years old, were established as boys’ schools, when it was not considered necessary to educate girls. Schools falling into this category include Winchester, Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse. As a result a modest number of boarding preps also established for boys wanting to secure entry to these senior boys public schools.

The number of girls only schools continued to expand and remain popular, partly because some parents wish to protect their daughters from the rough and tumble and banter of boys, but also because single sex schools provide a uniquely empowering and intellectually stimulating environment for girls where they can develop without distractions from the opposite sex. In recent years there has been a trend for single sex schools to convert to co-ed. Does this mean co-ed is best? No - it means that all parents should take a decision based on their own beliefs, values and culture, and taking into consideration the type of school that will best suit their individual child. In the following sections we examine some of the arguments on both sides, but at the end of the day it will be the parents’ decision.

Single Sex Girls’ Schools

Over the last 10 years the number of pupils educated in private girls’ single sex schools is estimated to have fallen by about 10%, as more schools go co-ed , especially in their sixth forms (years 12 and 13). The co-ed argument follows the premise that children should be educated in a mixed environment, which is a reflection of the real world that children will enter when they leave school.

However, do the facts bear this out?

There is no doubt that behaviours tend to differentiate boys from girls and are the result of the way our brains develop. It is not simply that girls are often more interested in playing with dolls and dressing up, while boys are more into sport and rough house games. In girls, the language areas of the brain develop early, while in boys the visual-spatial areas of the brain develop first. Boys and girls both see and hear differently. Boys are more attracted to direction and motion while girls go for textures and colours. It has been suggested that these tendencies result in boys who may struggle with languages and girls who may have little interest in sciences and maths.

If one examines the top 20 A level schools on our sister site, 16 out of the top 20 are single sex schools – girls only or boys only! If we examine the top 5 international baccalaureate schools, 3 out of the 5 larger cohort schools are girls only. 4 out of 5 smaller cohort schools are girls only. In the combined prep and senior sectors there are around three times as many single sex girls’ schools as boys’. This is undoubtedly down to "demand" because far more parents of girls prefer their daughters to have less distraction from the opposite sex than parents of boys. This is particularly prevalent among certain nationalities or faiths of international parents, including Muslims and Catholics. At Education Advisers we have innumerable requests from foreign parents to find girls’ boarding schools with safe and secure campuses away from towns and cities. They prefer their daughters to be removed from areas where there may be unruly behaviour or night time distractions. Yet this rarely crops up as an objection for their sons.

Many parents sending their daughters to boarding school are anxious about them developing relationships with boys and are more comfortable if they are in an all girls environment where any socialising with boys is strictly supervised. It is sometimes said that girls schools can be “bitchy”, and it is true that girls can form friendship “cliques” which some may feel excluded from. Note, there are friendship issues and occasional instances of bullying in all schools, both single sex and co-ed, good schools will deal with this quickly.

Single Sex Boys’ Schools

Among the boys senior boarding school list are some extremely well known heritage public schools, including Eton College, Harrow, Winchester, Tonbridge and Dulwich College. There are also a large number of boys independent day schools across the UK, some of the more famous being Merchant Taylors, Haberdasher’s Askes, Kings College Wimbledon and Magdalen College, which appear in our top 50 senior schools.

The co-ed argument follows the premise that children should be educated in a mixed environment, especially as 99% of universities are co-educational and boys and girls need to be properly prepared for life in the “real world” and to learn how to communicate with each other.

However, do the facts bear this out?

As mentioned above, from a young age, boys and girls tend to adopt certain behaviours. Male brains contain large amounts of Y chromosome while female brains have more X chromosome. Chromosomes affect how the brain develops, with girls developing and maturing quicker. The differences are greatest around age 15. Traditionally, boys’ schools tend to operate on the premise that boys enjoy running around, and are highly competitive, so team sports tend to play a major role. Of course this doesn’t apply to every boy, just as there are many girls who love competitive sport. In general, it is perhaps true that most boys tend to develop friendships through sports and the pursuit of common interests, whereas girls tend to bond by talking and sharing experiences.

Boys often take risks and sometimes need to be protected from risks. They like clear hierarchies and teacher authority. Boys often need to be pushed and respond better to clear rules, deadlines and punishments, whereas girls tend to be naturally hardworking and keen to please.

In case these boy traits sound negative, they merely indicate how boys only schools can use effective teaching. Boys not only like physical sports, but like competition and activity brought into the classroom. There has been a reduction in the number of male teachers in co-ed schools, but there are still many male teachers in boys schools and boys do better with strong male role models.

So, do single sex schools help students do better academically? As we have seen, among the top 20 A level schools on our sister site, 16 out of the top 20 are single sex schools – girls only or boys only! If you compare the A Level results of boarders in the top 5 boys only schools with those of the top 5 girl’ schools and the top 5 co-ed schools, the boys results are significantly better. So there must be something about the way boys have been taught in these schools that encourages them to excel academically.

Co-educational Schools

The argument for co-education is simply put by most Heads of co-ed schools. We live in a mixed gender society and nearly all UK Universities are mixed sex – so children should grow up together and schools should be capable of getting the best from both girls and boys. There are many advantages for young people in learning to get on with members of the opposite sex in a structured educational setting, and having boys and girls in the same school is great for drama productions with male and female parts. A co-ed school provides children with the opportunity to learn from each other and how to get on with each other in different contexts. Parents should also feel reassured that the boarding arrangements are segregated by sex and rules for socialising are strictly enforced at all schools.

Although there are obvious differences between the "typical" boy and the "typical" girl, no child will be 100% suited to a particular learning style. Many girls thrive on competition and many boys love reading. The key is to understand your own child and then decide which type of school will suit them best. The typical co-ed senior school tends to be 60% boys and 40% girls, because of the existence of a larger number of girls only schools. Certainly a large proportion of parents support the arguments for co-education and that is how you arrive at a decision - by your own beliefs.

Our job at Education Advisers is to take your brief and find you the right school according to your wishes. We would simply say that there are probably more vacancies available at girls only schools and additionally they are often about 10% cheaper. The choice is yours! If you would like a discussion on choosing the right type of school for your child, please call us on +44 1622 813870 or complete our enquiry form.

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