Single-sex schools: the pros and cons

Pros and cons of single-sex primary and secondary education
Would you consider a girls' school or boys' school for your child at primary or secondary level? We take a look at single-sex education and whether it’s right for your child.

The debate over whether single-sex schooling is superior to mixed has been rumbling on for decades, and it shows no sign of going away. Only recently, the head of co-educational Brighton College made the headlines over his comments about single-sex schools being a ‘deeply unrealistic world’ and ‘a huge disadvantage’ for girls.

Opinions are polarised, but research has failed to prove definitively whether single-sex education is better than mixed or vice versa. So what are the pros and cons?

Developmental differences between boys and girls

One of the biggest advantages of single-sex schooling concerns the vastly different ways in which the sexes develop – something that’s particularly pronounced between the ages of six and 14. ‘Developmentally, boys are delayed in comparison to girls at this stage,’ explains James Wilding, Academic Principal of Claires Court Schools in Berkshire and spokesperson for the Independent Schools Association. ‘Girls are usually ahead in reading, writing and spelling, while boys are ahead in maths. Boys need more intensive input in these areas of literacy, so separating them means we can focus the teaching where it’s needed.’

The differences in how the sexes develop can have an impact on children’s experience and enjoyment of school, says James. ‘We know about a third of girls can’t cope with the boisterousness, and are irritated and even held back by the behaviour of boys who, despite being the same age, are less mature,’ he explains.

But while James believes that children do best if they’re separated from early in their primary school journey, Caroline Jordan, head teacher at Headington School in Oxford and president of the Girls’ Schools Association, thinks that there are benefits in educating them together until secondary age.

‘In the younger years of primary school, we see the sexes mixing fairly evenly,’ she explains. ‘As they get older, we notice that girls and boys tend to cluster: if you look at the type of parties they have, they’re much less likely to be mixed as the children move up the school.’

Boys' and girls' academic achievement

There has been a lot of research into whether children perform better in single-sex schools, but the results are inconclusive. A 2004 study, for example, found that boys’ outcomes didn’t differ significantly between single-sex and mixed schools, although girls achieved better in girls-only schools. However, other studies have claimed that girls aren’t held back by attending co-ed schools.

Single-sex schools often excel in terms of academic results, but as the majority of these schools are either independent or grammar schools, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the improved outcomes are due to the sexes being separated, or the fact that many select pupils based on ability.

What’s clear is that girls are more likely to take traditionally ‘male’ subjects if they go to a single-sex school. ‘Girls at secondary school can be very sensitive to how girls and boys “should” behave, which impacts their choices,’ Caroline explains. ‘They’re more likely to take subjects like maths and sciences in a girls-only environment – they’re more confident about taking risks if they aren’t around boys.’

James agrees. ‘The opportunity for boys to belittle girls’ interest in technology and tell them they can’t do it has been removed,’ he says.

However, boys may not benefit in the same way: research has shown that they’re even less likely to take typically ‘female’ subjects like foreign languages and food technology in boys-only schools.

Sports in single-sex schools

One clear advantage of single-sex schooling for both boys and girls occurs on the sports field. A recent study found that girls are significantly less likely to be involved in sports than boys at secondary school level, and part of the reason for this is body consciousness.

‘They might be reluctant to do a sports club at lunchtime if they’re going to get pink and sweaty and then have to sit in the classroom with boys in the afternoon,’ says Caroline. ‘In a single-sex environment, we can also offer sports that may be more appealing to girls, like dance, Zumba and yoga.’

James explains that boys benefit too. ‘When you have segregated sports, you can focus on coaching boys and girls in team sports like rugby, football, cricket, athletics and hockey, starting at a younger age,’ he says. ‘As a result, these children develop skills earlier and often become very competent sportspeople.’

Social lives

Critics of single-sex education often claim that young people are socially disadvantaged if they don’t mingle with the opposite sex at school. However, Caroline points out that the majority of single-sex schools provide opportunities to mix.

‘Single-sex schools usually have close links with schools that cater for the opposite sex to give pupils opportunities to socialise, for example through joint events like debating, orchestra, choirs and drama,’ she explains. ‘If a school didn’t provide these opportunities to interact, parents would need to make more of an effort outside school, but even single-sex boarding schools put a lot of effort into helping boys and girls socialise together.’

Nevertheless, several studies have reported that boys and girls who attend co-ed schools are more satisfied with their education, seeing it as a more ‘natural’ environment that helps their relationships with the opposite sex.

James agrees that there comes a point where most children fare better in a co-ed environment. ‘If it weren’t for public exams in Year 11, I would bring girls and boys together for Year 10 and above,’ he says. ‘Most young people of this age actively want to be educated together.’

Mental health and bullying

Another criticism of single-sex schools is that they’re hotbeds of bullying and mental health problems. And while girls’ schools come under particular fire, research has suggested that boys at single-sex schools may also suffer: a 2009 study found that men who’d attended boys’ schools were more likely to have depression or relationship problems in later life.

But Caroline and James both dispute that this is specific to single-sex schools. ‘There will be bullying in every sector, but in mixed schools, that’s more likely to be linked to the interactions between boys and girls,’ Caroline explains. ‘Mental health is a huge issue among teenagers, but it’s not exclusive to girls. I think all schools need to be aware of these issues and be upfront about how they handle them.’

What parents say

So what do parents whose children attend single-sex schools think? Jackie Roxon, mum to Elizabeth, 14, and Chloe, 12, says: ‘Girls can be just as catty in mixed schools, it’s just that there, the gossiping tends to be about boys,’ she says. ‘Also, some of the abuse that girls get from boys in mixed schools is unbelievable. My girls have plenty of contact with boys outside school through social media, but it’s nice that they don’t have to worry about them during school time.’

Emily Haward, mum to Leona, 13, agrees in part. ‘There are no distractions and no pressure to “dress up” for the boys, so no make-up and a ponytail is standard up to Year 11,’ she says. ‘My daughter has a wide social circle, but I do notice a tendency towards teenage hysteria.’

Becky Moore’s sons, Toby, 15, and Jack, 12, attend a boys’ school. ‘It happens to be our catchment school, but it works for them, and they have plenty of social time with the linked girls’ school,’ she explains. ‘The downside is that results aren’t always the best, but any cohort of boys will challenge the averages.’

Is a single-sex school right for your child?

Many of us have stereotypical views of the quiet, bookish girls’ school pupil, and the rough and tumble rugby lad who attends a boys’ school, but Caroline says that there’s no such thing as a ‘type’ of child who is best suited to a single-sex education.

‘I think any good school suits all sorts of child,’ she explains. ‘I would never advise making a single-sex school your top priority when choosing schools, or ruling them out totally: it’s more important to look for the environment that will best suit for your child, regardless of whether it’s single-sex or co-ed. However, I would always suggest that parents who are in the process of choosing schools look at one single-sex school if that's a potential option for their child, regardless of any pre-conceptions.’