Is single school education best? (discuss)

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The single sex versus co-ed school debate. People feel strongly about it don’t they?!

As someone with an older brother and therefore constantly around boys as a tween, I loved the escape of my all girl’s school, where I could parade my dodgy hair and spots in peace. But I know even from my own friends that many of them are vehemently against single sex schools, thinking them an anacronism, a throwback to the Fifties, a bit weird.

Today, 21st century girls’ schools come in many different shapes and sizes. Some cater for 100 per cent girls, others provide a predominantly girls-only environment with boys in the nursery and/or sixth form. Some follow a diamond model, with equal numbers of boys but separate classrooms between the ages of 11 to 16.

It’s not just an issue for those who send their kids to private schoool either. In Kent where the state grammar school system thrives, there are plenty of single sex schools. I’ve worked at both a co-ed comprehensive state school and a single-sex grammar school – so I’ve seen both sides of the coin, if you like. It’s also a choice my daughter will make next year if she passes the exam.

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I thought it would be interesting to open a debate about the subject – how kids learn best, the differences between boys and girls, all that stuff. Please get in touch with your comments, but to kick things off Julie Lodrick (above), Headmistress at the all-girls Kent College, Pembury, (see my review of the school) has gamely stepped up to the challenge of making the argument for single sex schools. Take a deep breath, we’re heading for choppy waters!

Single sex or co-ed? Discuss.

It depends on each child and obviously the age and stage of their life. I really want to emphasize that single-sex education does not have to mean single-sex upbringing, which is an entirely different thing. It’s possible to offer the benefits of an all-girls school, while making sure that girls have the opportunity to interact with boys in a way that is not stilted or unnatural. Kent College offers an annual outdoor education trip to the Ardeche with a nearby boys’ independent school.  We run three Academies, Theatre, Swimming and Gymnastics that run on a Saturday morning and are open to all children in the local area. The theatre academy in particular attracts a good mix of girls and boys and the boys very often take roles in our annual productions.

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What’s the main benefit of single sex education then?

For girls it’s all about avoiding the pressure. For example Maths A Level is the most popular at K.C – research demonstrates that this is unusual at mixed schools. Also at a co-educational school everything is shared – in that leadership posts are shared between the boys and the girls and the same with the facilities. Sports teams are rarely mixed once you get to Secondary School, so that means you need space for the boys to play games and practise and for the girls. Here everything is available to the girls. There’s no sense of the girls keeping to the sidelines while the boys kick the ball around at break time – they take total ownership of the space.

Are the differences between girls and boys really that profound?

There are similarities as well as differences of course but one thing is for sure – you can be more relaxed to be yourself at a girls’ school. The girls are at an age where they can feel quite self-conscious and this just doesn’t have to be an issue here. It’s quite liberating. The environment becomes very nurturing. The increased space promotes the idea that girls can do anything. It actually encourages strong female leadership.

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Isn’t single sex a bit old fashioned now?  Single sex schools are amongst the most successful schools in the country. It is about being an excellent school first and foremost.

But not all girls would suit an all-girls school? It is about choice – for some girls the single sex environment helps them to feel comfortable in their own skin and grow up at their own pace.

So what’s your advice in a nutshell for parents wildly anti single-sex school? Keep an open mind and look at a variety of schools. As parents, you know your child the best and the most important thing is to find the school that suits your child. You will know the right school when you see it!

You can see Kent College, Pembury, for yourself at the Senior School Open Mornings on Saturday  1 Oct and Tues 18 October. Kent College Pembury, Old Church Rd, Tunbridge Wells TN2 4AX.

Got a boy? Muddy founder, Hero Brown, over in Bucks/Oxon put these same questions to Ben Beardmore-Gray (below) the Headmaster at the all-boys Moulsford School on the Oxon/Berks border. Here’s what he said:

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Single sex or co-ed? Discuss.

Well, you’re talking to a head of an all-boys school! But in truth I’d say don’t get hung up either way. People can feel very strongly about the subject of single sex schools, but I’ve been a headmaster at both single sex and co-ed and they both offer something different. The most important thing is that the school is good, not whether the kids are all the same sex – I’d argue that it’s better to send your child to a good single sex school rather than an OK co-ed option and vice versa. However, if you’re talking about two schools that are of the same standard, I’m a fan of single sex schools because they do offer such targeted education.

What’s the main benefit of single sex education then?

The most obvious advantage is that you can can completely focus your resources and teaching style – boys learn differently and behave differently to girls! So at Moulsford, if we need to recruit a teacher, we only have to consider how brilliant they’d be at teaching boys. Similarly if we want to or develop an area of the school, we need only think about how it would best benefit the boys.

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Are the differences between girls and boys really that profound?

There are similarities as well as differences of course, but I’d argue that particularly up to 13, boys and girls have very different requirements. As a group, boys love practical teaching and competition – many of them are not naturals at concentrating in the classroom at this stage.  So where possible we aim to make the boys’ education as practical as possible, and use the grounds as a giant outdoor classroom – for example relay spelling tests, re-enacting battles in History, and orienteering around the school in Geography.  Girls are generally able to concentrate better, they’re more diligent at 12 to 13 years of age and probably respond better to the structured classroom environment. At this age, girls can be well ahead of boys in terms of maturity and academic performance – that’s not a great environment for some boys to be learning in.

Is this just a way of enforcing old stereotypes?

I think the opposite, that single sex schools allow children not to be shoved into stereotypes. Single sex education can free up children from preconceived notions of  ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ activities. At girls’ schools for example, you see a much higher take up of sciences than at co-ed. At Moulsford we have a very high take up of performance arts because the boys don’t see the choirs, drama performances and instruments like the flute, oboe, clarinet and the harp as being for the girls. In contrast, when I was head of a co-ed school, the girls dominated these areas by as much as 70 per cent to 30 per cent.

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Isn’t single sex a bit old fashioned now?

I admit it, I went to a single sex school and boarded from the age of 7 and I don’t think I spoke to a girl until I was 18! Schools aren’t like that now and it’s just not true that kids from single sex schools don’t mix with the opposite sex or can’t be progressive and social. It’s great that there’s no distractions for the boys at school but we deliberately don’t have a Saturday school so that the boarders go home on the weekend, mix with their friends and family and lead a normal life, and of course plenty of our kids are day pupils too. I think social media, for good or bad, also plays a large role in connecting kids these days, whatever school they’re at.

But not all boys would suit an all-boys school?

Well, that’s true. A boys’ school does suit a certain type of child – someone who needs a framework to reach his potential either academically or pastorally. Most boys at this age would, given the choice, be out kicking a football around rather than studying, so it’s important to give them structure and guidance. We have very clear boundaries at Moulsford – we’re massively hot on manners, courtesy and discipline for example, as we see those as important life skills. We’re strict on homework. We have clear boundaries. We’re also very sporty school and encourage competition not just in the A and B teams but for all teams – we want all the kids to participate.

But not every boy responds to the same thing. If your child is a self-starter, he may be just as happy or perhaps more comfortable at a co-ed school where there is a slightly more liberal environment and freedom of choice, particularly for secondary education.

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

Work out what your child needs, keep an open mind and take a look at all your options, both co-ed or single sex. You’ll know the right school when you see it!

2 comments on “Is single school education best? (discuss)”

  • nicky September 27, 2016

    I think that from a young age many children are taught , or it is at least implied, that there are boys and girls subjects. I believe that a girl only school does away with that issue. There is nobody in the class to mention that DT is ‘for boys’. At my single sex grammar we were expected to study computing as well as home ec whilst at the mixed school down the road there was a definite lack of girls willing to don a woodworking apron.
    My 11 year old has chosen to go to a single sex school mainly because of the GCSE choices on offer there though there was a comment of ‘and boys only mess around’ thrown into the mix while we were looking around it last year!

    Reply
    • aliagnew September 27, 2016

      Hi Nicky – thanks for your comments – I’ve heard others describe the same experience as you. It’s definitely an interesting debate – particularly here in Kent where we have the single-sex grammar schools. Good to hear from you! xA

      Reply

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