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Debate: single-sex schools

Got a son and wondering about schooling? We wade into an age-old debate. Is single-sex school education best? (Discuss).

I’m going to put it out there. I don’t understand the argument that single-sex schools are a flawed concept because they don’t represent real life. The theory being that because life after school and the work place is mixed that makes single sex schools an anacronism, a throwback to the Fifties, a bit weird. Er, hello? Unless I’m missing something, by the time you’re in the workplace you are nothing like your 13-year-old self, so I’ve never really seen how this is relevant.

Being an 11 – 17 year old is a unique age in as much as you have more raging, rampaging hormones, exam pressures and are undergoing more physical and mental development than at any other time in your life. Each child is obviously different but for some, the benefit of being around all-boys or all-girls between the ages of 11 and 16 can be liberating. I know it was for me. A lot of our Kent schools follow this model and introduce the opposite sex in Sixth Form, in preparation for university and ‘real life’.

With this on-going debate in mind (I’ve noticed people feel quite strongly about this topic). I asked Mr Mike Piercy, Headmaster at The New Beacon prep school in Sevenoaks, some pretty probing questions on this thorny subject. And he didn’t shy away from it. If you have a boy and are wondering if it’s right for him, you’ll want to read this.

What are the main benefits of single sex education then?

Overall there is no need to be embarrassed about stereotyping as neuroscience is now demonstrating what we have always known: boys learn in a different way to girls.  A boys’ school is tailored to their needs and they thrive within it.

It seems glaringly obvious (though sometimes, somehow obscured) that academics and learning are at the heart of a school. There is an understandable tendency for teachers to teach to the compliant. Girls will more often put up their hands to answer questions – boys are more hesitant. Girls tend to meet deadlines – boys less so. Ask a boy to write a page, the last full stop will be at the end of the last line – girls will often write over the page. A boys’ school is tailored to the way boys learn: they need clarity of target and boundary and so develop good work habits for life.

My son is not overly sporty or bouncy and I certainly don’t want to encourage sexism or stereotyping – can an all-boys’ environment really be right for my child?

A fundamental part of The New Beacon’s ethos is ‘respecting difference’ – there is no acceptance of any form of ‘-ism’, including sexism. Not every boy is sporty – though we do wish them to be active!  We want every boy to find his strengths which could be in music, the arts, drama, sailing or, quite simply, being a kind, empathic, team player who supports others.

The trick is to provide opportunity for all, being sensitive to individual ability, character, personality. Encourage the reticent; subdue the ebullient!

Are the differences between girls and boys really that profound?

Generally speaking, yes, especially in a school which goes from 4 to 13.  The rates and stages of cognitive, conceptual and emotional development are very different in boys and girls. The research evidence is all out there.

Isn’t single sex schooling an unrealistic concept seeing as the work / real life environment after school is co-ed?

For children it is a very co-educational world out there – but school is different. The classroom is about learning and a teaching style which brings out the best in boys can only be a good thing for their longer educational path. So long as the school provides for each individual’s social and emotional development (pastoral care is paramount!) and respect underpins the school’s values then boys will benefit.

Is there a ‘type’ of boy that suits an all-boys school?

Last week the boys were playing on the fields in the sunshine during morning break. There were tennis balls, tennis rackets, cricket bats, French cricket and all sorts of other games. A few boys had chosen their own activity. They were collecting the cut grass and shaping it into a big birds’ nest. The next day I noticed the one birds’ nest had become nine smaller nests. Wonderful, gentle, creative play! There is no type – each to their own.

So what’s your advice in a nutshell for parents wildly anti single-sex school?

Take a look, keep an open mind, come and visit.  You may be surprised by the warmth, the happiness, the laughter. Yet there is also a clear sense of purpose – high expectation, individual achievement, warmth and pastoral care can happily coexist – just as they do at The New Beacon.

So what are your thoughts? Is single school education best? (Discuss). *Gulp* – would love to hear your thoughts…

The New Beacon School, Brittains Lane, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN13 2PB, Tel: 01732 452131, newbeacon.org.uk. See the school for yourself at the Open Day on Friday 25 May from 2.00 3.30pm.

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