Single sex or Co-education – which is best for girls?
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Published: Thu, 12 Oct 2017
SINGLE-SEX OR CO-EDUCATION:
WHICH IS BEST FOR GIRLS?
Much debate has taken place in recent years over whether pupils are more effectively educated in same-sex or co-educational learning environments. Some argue that there is no conclusive evidence that educating girls and boys separately improves educational outcomes for either group. However, advocates of same-sex education assert it provides a better opportunity, especially for girls. Traditional all-girls schools have been part of the UK educational system for a very long time. A more recent innovation has been the introduction of single-sex classes within a co-educational school. In this scenario, girls and boys are separated for certain classes such as mathematics or science, but participate in other classes and school activities together. Supporters of girls-only education cite a long list of benefits to girls in such environments, which are held to be true of both all-girls schools and single-sex classes within co-educational schools.
There is considerable research to support improved academic achievement by girls in single-sex environments, although some debate remains whether it is the single-sex nature of the education provided or simply its better quality. This higher achievement by girls in same-sex schools is seen globally, however, lending credibility to the assertion that girls excel academically in single-gender environments. For example, a research report by the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) in the United States found that graduate of girls’ schools “enter college with higher test scores, and once there, major in science and math at a higher rate than females or males nationwide” (Lamb 2000, 3). Jackson (2002) summarises the results of a study undertaken by the Ministry of Education in Australia, stating “both boys and girls in single-sex classes achieved higher levels of mathematics competence and demonstrated more positive shifts in attitudes than those of their counterparts in mixed-sex classes” (38). In the UK, the eight top-ranked schools for the General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations were all single-sex girls’ schools in 1999, and girls’ schools routinely out-rank mixed-sex schools in the exams (Jackson 2002). Kelly (1996), in analysing the National Consortium of Examination Results, found that students in girls’ schools significantly outscored girls who attended co-ed schools. Studies such as these show girls achieve more in boy-free environments.
But why would girls achieve greater academic success in a school environment without boys? One reason is that all-girls classes are more likely to be tailored and relevant to girls learning preferences. The NCGS study previously cited found that seventy-five percent of women who had attended girls’ schools considered them “more relevant to young women’s personal and social needs, while ninety percent said such schools were more relevant to their academic needs” (Lamb 2000, 3). For instance, examples given in a math class would be more likely to be subjects related to girls’ interests in an all-girls class. Girls prefer to work collaboratively, and are more likely to be allowed to do so in a class geared specifically to them (Burgess 1990). While boys tend to be competitive in the classroom, girls have been shown to be more comfortable working for a win-win outcome, where all the students in a group “win,” rather than one student overachieving the others (Jackson 2002). Removing boys from the learning environment decreases the amount of competition in the classroom and encourages female participation.
Not surprisingly, all-girls classes were found to be quieter and more conducive to learning. Given that “boys and girls mature and develop at different rates,” mixed classes are more likely to have boys misbehaving when girls are ready to buckle down and work on the material before them (Warrington and Younger 2001, 345). Studies have shown boys are more likely to participate in disruptive and attention-seeking behaviours in the classroom (Jackson 2002). Viewing several similar research projects, Warrington and Younger (2001) found that all-girls’ schools provide “an environment for learning and achievement, free from the distraction and harassment of boys” (340). Boys were found to often make fun of those who answered incorrectly, which causes some students to become passive and withdrawn. They also dominated discussions, causing other students to not participate. Female students repeatedly acknowledged they were more likely to participate and be willing to offer a potentially wrong answer in and all-girls environment (Jackson 2002).
This freedom from intimidation and harassment, including hostile and aggressive behaviour towards women, was found to have a marked impact on girls confidence and participation in academic endeavours (Parker and Rennie 2002). “In single-sex classes, girls were observed to (and also perceived themselves to) participate more, be more extroverted, have more interaction with the teacher and receive less harassment from other students than in mixed-sex classes” (Parker and Rennie 2002, 888-889). Jackson and Smith (2000) similarly found that both teachers and girls perceived the learning environment to be more supportive than mixed environments.
Over time, such environments have been shown to lead to increased confidence in the classroom. Teachers noted that girls entering a single-sex learning environment from a co-educational one were far less likely to have participated in risk-taking. They were unwilling to attempt a problem they doubted they could solve correctly, and were uncomfortable when presented with open-ended questions for which there was no identifiably “right” answer (Parker and Rennie 2002). However, when no boys were in the class, teachers could address these behaviours constructively. As the girls were encouraged to explore issues and ideas or design their own activities, they gradually became more comfortable with trying more “risky” projects where their success was not guaranteed (Parker and Rennie 2002).
This conducive learning environment was a major factor in parents enrolling their daughters in single-sex schools or classes. All-girls’ schools were found to be perceived as offering a more protective environment for girls, encouraging them to take academic risks they may not have pursued in a mixed-sex environment (Lamb 2000, Lee & Marks, 1992). Warrington and Younger (2001) cite a number of studies, which show “single-sex classes give teachers the opportunity to challenge girls’ traditional stereotypes and the gendered perceptions of certain subjects, and enable teachers to build up girls’ confidence and self-esteem in non-traditional subjects” (341). Ball and Gewirtz (1997) note “themes of refuge, escape, safety and concomitantly of calmness” as key reasons parents gave for choosing single-sex institutions for their daughters (5).
Another factor drawing parents to all-girls schools was social perceptions. The “gender identification and gender socialization embedded in the girls’ school” was found to carry “a distinct social class coding” (Ball and Gewirtz 1997, 5). Sending one’s daughter to a single-sex school was perceived to be an action indicative of middle-class or above socio-economic standing, and more likely to prepare her to be an appropriate, respectable woman in society (Ball and Gewirtz 1997). Not surprisingly, traditionalism and respectability were listed as motivators by a number of families in seeking single-sex schools. For example, a number of parents in a study of two girls schools in southern England stated they chose to send their daughters to single-sex schools to avoid classrooms dominated by boys and the lack of value of femininity and respectability they perceived to be prevalent in mixed-sex environments (Ball and Gewirtz 1997). Parents were more likely to prefer single-sex schooling for girls than for boys (West and Hunter 1993).
Returning to academics, single-sex education for girls has been shown to increase the likelihood they will enrol in upper level math and science classes. “There is evidence suggesting that single-sex schools promote greater enjoyment of, and a greater uptake of, curriculum subjects traditionally viewed as gender inappropriate” (Jackson and Smith 2000, 412). In a co-ed situation, girls face greater pressure to behave in a way society prescribes as appropriate feminine behaviour. This includes avoidance of academic subject matter traditionally considered to be male territory. However, girls in boy-free environments are more likely to choose subjects of study outside traditional “female” boundaries, and are more likely to both study and succeed in high-status subjects such as hard science and mathematics (Stables 1990). Parker and Rennie (2002) similarly found that “girls in single-sex mathematics classes develop higher levels of confidence in mathematics, which are reflected in their subsequent choice of more challenging mathematics” (884). Single-sex mathematics classes within the mixed-sex secondary school environment have been shown to result in more girls enrolling in upper level mathematics (Parker and Rennie 2002). Without the pressures to conform that exist in a mixed school, girls can more freely pursue their true academic interests, even if such interests fall outside the realm of traditionally “female” pursuits.
A clear example of this was recorded in a study of girls and their enrolment in various physics courses. In the schools involved in the research study, girls had the option of enrolling in a single-sex or a mixed-sex GCSE physics course within a co-educational school. The girls who chose the single-sex class were found to be highly more likely to continue with A-level physics than those in the mixed GCSE class (Parker and Rennie 2002). This reduction of stigma for failing or having difficulty with math and science subjects naturally encourages more girls to try their hand at such courses. This is reinforced by research by Jackson and Smith (2000), who found “thirty-eight percent of girls said that the main differences between single-sex and mixed maths classes were that in single-sex classes they were not made fun o for getting something wrong and that they did not feel embarrassed for scoring a low mark” (417).
Another positive result of single-sex education for women is that girls from such backgrounds are more likely to assume leadership roles, both in school and after they enter the community and workforce. Burgess (1990) found that girls’ have both increased self-esteem and a greater willingness to pursue active leadership roles in same-sex schools. In an all girls’ school, a girl will be class president, a girl will win the science award, and a girl will be the athletic star. Girls participating in such an environment become used to seeing themselves and other girls assume leadership roles. Once the possibility of leading becomes part of young women’s identities, they are then more likely to continue to seek out leadership opportunities, even if they are returned to a co-educational situation (Warrington and Younger 2001). This is also likely to carry over into girls’ lives long after they have graduated from the public school environment. The NCGS found that subsequently graduates from all-girls’ schools were more likely to hold leadership positions either professionally or in their community, with almost eighty percent of respondents achieving some such position (Lamb 2000).
However, not all participants in single-sex schools enjoy the increased opportunities and benefits listed above. For some families, the most important benefit of single-sex schools is the reinforcement of their religious or cultural values. For example, the Muslim religion prohibits the socialisation or combined activities of girls and boys after puberty. The government is unwilling to fund Muslim schools, although their number is increasing rapidly in several areas of the United Kingdom, for reasons that will not be debated here. This leads some Muslim families to send their daughters on lengthy visits to their country of origin, or to enrol them in Muslim girls’ schools that the family may find difficult to afford (Haw 1994). “It is not unusual to find Muslim girls taking up many of the few places available to children of other religions in both Roman Catholic and Church of England schools,” as their families would rather they be in conflicting religious environments than mixed with boys (Haw 1994, 5). While such schools recognise the moral and cultural values of such a community, these educational institutions are not likely to provide some of the opportunities discussed above. These schools “reduce the educational opportunities available to Muslim girls because it is believed that such schools reflect a cultural tradition which relegates women to an inferior position and gives them a substandard education” (Haw 1994, 9).
Same-sex teaching assignments can also benefit teachers, as their perceptions of how their teaching methods affect girls and boys can be enhanced by such work. Those participating in a survey and study of single-sex classrooms within a co-educational school by Parker and Rennie (2002) found they employed a number of gender-related methods in their classrooms. For example, several teachers stated they were likely to use girls’ presence and influence in the classroom to help manage boys’ behaviour, regardless of the effect on the girls being used. They avoided deficiencies in the boys’ written work and communication skills, allowing the class to rely on girls’ abilities in these areas. Teachers further stated they were more likely to call upon boys, and less likely to give girls’ opportunities to take risks in the classroom or address open-ended questions without boys’ leadership (Parker and Rennie 2002). Many stated that prior to teaching single-sex classes, although they knew when they assigned homework that primarily the girls would be the ones completing it, they still often designed homework assignments with male students in mind (Parker and Rennie 2002). After teaching single-sex classes of girls and boys, most teachers were reported to change their teaching methods to more greatly incorporate girls in classroom activities and discussion and to value girls’ input and participation in class (Parker and Rennie 2002).
Relating such findings to educational theory, Hildebrand (1989) defined an instructional approach that values and enhances both boys’ and girls’ interests, needs, concerns, prior learning experiences, and preferred learning styles. “In terms of instructional strategies, the accumulated wisdom of researchers and practitioners from virtually every continent of the world has resulted in the development and refinement of the approach” outlined by Hildebrand, ” which has become known as ‘gender-inclusive'” (Parker and Rennie 2002, 881). Educators worldwide have recognised the need for gender considerations in formulating teaching methods and practise, which further reinforces teachers’ need to consider varied learning preferences when formulating classroom instruction and activities.
While a substantial amount of research and findings as described above support single-sex education, there are those that are unwilling to conclude such findings are necessarily the result of segregated instruction; they consider these findings inconclusive. Such researchers, in addition to opponents of single-sex education, contend that the above result from better schools or classes in general, not their single-sex nature. While “single-sex schools are regularly at the top of the national league tables in terms of student performance,” many such schools are “highly selective, tend to recruit from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and are long-established schools with academic traditions” (Warrington and Younger 2001, 340). It is not that the schools are segregated by gender that makes them so effective, therefore, but the fact that they are selective, high quality schools with a selective student body. This idea is supported by a broad study of all-girls’ instruction in the United States. Their AAUW found that “separating by sex is not the solution to gender inequity in education” (Lamb 2000, 2). When elements of a good education, such as small classes, effective teachers, equitable teaching practises, focused academic curriculum, and well-managed programmes are present, girls and boys succeed regardless of whether in single or mixed-sex environments (Lamb 2000).
Parents who send their daughters to all-girls’ schools are more likely to be involved in and value their education (Warrington and Younger 2001)). Those who are less concerned about their children’s schooling are likely to send them to the most convenient school, normally the public institution closest to their home. They are also less likely to enrol their children in single-sex initiatives within that school (Lamb 2000). It can be inferred that these parents would be less likely to work with their children at home if they were struggling with an academic subject, less likely to support them with private tutors, and less likely to go to the school to work with teachers and staff on how to optimise their children’s learning experiences. It can be argued, therefore, that girls in single-sex environments outperform those in mixed-sex environments, not because of any great benefit in such settings but because they have greater support for their academic achievements at home.
This is more likely to be true of education in the US, where the government is legally prohibited from funding single-sex education on the grounds that it is inherently unequal (Parker and Rennie 2002, 882). In the United States, therefore, students attending single-sex schools are paying to do so, and are therefore more likely to come from well-to-do environments, or at least from families who care enough to send them to schools other than those provided by public funds. Comparing the results of such students, who can be assumed to have a greater amount of parental support for their education than their public school counterparts, with a broad range of students in the co-ed public system, some of whose parents care and some of whose parents do not, is held to be not equitable by those not convinced of the merits of single-sex education. These results are mildly supported by research in the United Kingdom. In a study of a co-educational high school offering primarily single-sex classes (and it has been so for twenty-five years), “seventy-one percent of respondents identified the school as their nearest secondary school, and had chosen it for this reason” (Warrington and Younger 2001, 344). As single-sex schools are often public in the UK, there is the tendency of parents to simply enrol their child at the closest school, regardless of its attributes or benefits. Students at single-sex institutions in the UK cannot, therefore, be assumed to be of higher economic standing than their mixed-sex counterparts (Warrington and Younger 2001).
Single-sex class initiatives typically have teachers with a higher level of training in gender-inclusive teaching methods (Parker and Rennie 2002). However, teachers with the greatest classroom management skills, also usually those with the most experience, were more likely to be assigned to lower-level boys classes because of behavioural difficulties prevalent there (Jackson 2002). This practise, in effect, rewards poorly behaving boys with better or at least more experienced teachers, while better behaving girls classes receive teachers with less classroom management skill (Parker and Rennie 2002).
Another issue requiring serious consideration is the chance that separate educational offerings will lead to one being deficient to the other. Anytime there is a division in education, there is the risk that one segment will be watered-down, under funded, or in some way become inferior to another segment over time (Parker and Rennie 2002). For example, if school staff consciously or unconsciously believes girls are less able to perform in the mathematics classroom, teachers of single-sex girls’ math classes may begin to adjust the curriculum so that it is easier for girls to succeed. This type of action is usually justified by the argument that it is increasing the students’ confidence by reducing their risk of failure (Stables 1990). Over time, the cumulative effect of continued slackening of academic rigor in the girls’ mathematics programme could lead to an inferior curriculum and teaching than that of a boys or mixed class (Gill 1992). Most single-sex instructional programmes have not taken such a division of educational quality over time into consideration, or the concept that teachers and administrators could begin to practice “a ‘deficit approach’ to girls’ education, which implies that girls are deficient in some way in comparison to boys” (Parker and Rennie 2002, 885). Gill (1992) advocates that teachers much adapt their teaching approaches when operating in single-sex classrooms and be conscious of their expectations and priorities, particularly in girls’ education. Awareness and training are required to avoid the creation of such a deficit approach in the single-sex environment (Gill 1992).
The continued emphasis on boys’ needs throughout the schools system reinforces the possibility of girls’ programmes becoming substandard. For example, over half the schools implementing single-sex classrooms in one recent study did so to address perceived underachievement by boys, not the needs of girls (Warrington and Younger 2003). In another thirty percent of the schools in the same study, the change was undertaken to address boys’ difficulties in English and modern foreign languages. Less than twenty percent of schools implementing single-sex classes within the co-educational environment did so to encourage the academic achievement of girls or with their needs in mind (Warrington and Younger 2003).
Interestingly enough, educators working within boys’ single-sex programmes were less than convinced that such initiatives achieved their desired results in relation to boys’ achievement and behaviour. “Staff concurred that the organisation afforded distinct advantages to girls, but were less convinced about the advantages for boys” (Warrington and Younger 2001, 352). Boys classes were found to be more difficult to manage and less likely to offer an environment conducive to learning. . In studies of single-sex classes within a co-educational school, for example, “Boys cited ‘fighting and roughness’ as one of the worst features of boys’ classes” (Jackson 2002, 42). In comparison, in a survey of students and educators participating in single-sex instruction within a co-educational environment, all respondents, teachers and students alike, agreed that single-sex girls’ classes were more pleasant and conducive to learning than either mixed-sex classes or single-sex classes of boys (Parker and Rennie 2002).
A great majority of staff felt boys’ inappropriate behaviour increased in the single-sex classroom, and teachers often reported finding classroom management significantly more difficult in such classes (Warrington and Younger 2003). Teachers and administrators voiced concern about increased bullying in all-boys’ environments. Jackson (2002), in summing up research done by Askew and Ross, asserted that in these situations, it was found that often “weaker boys ‘take the place’ of girls and provide a ‘butt’ for proving masculinity” (Jackson 2002, 44). Interestingly, these teachers and administrators were considering returning girls to mixed-sex classes to protect such boys from harm, presumably so that the girls could reclaim their place as the ‘butts’ against which bullying and masculine posturing would be levelled. “One school, which had introduced single-sex classes mainly because of behavioural problems among boys, was contemplating abandoning it precisely for the same reason: a survey amongst staff in this school found that an overwhelming eighty-six percent of staff felt boys’ behaviour to be a problem in single-sex groups” (Warrington and Younger 2003, 347). West and Hunter (1993) found in their research that parents preferred boys to be educated in co-educational schools, with single-sex education for boys being decidedly unpopular.
Advocates of co-education often do so on its enhancement of boys performance in the classroom. For example, girls often assume a care-taking role with boys in a mixed-sex classroom (Jackson and Smith 2000). The belief that girls can enhance boys learning by exerting a “civilising influence” on boys in a mixed-sex environment has been floated in the educational community for decades (Jackson 2002). This is one reason for some schools that initially undertook single-sex instruction to deal with male behavioural issues are abandoning such programmes. This does not consider the enhancement possibilities for girls in such schemes. “Girls are accustomed to their roles as supporters o the boys, and whilst many girls regard boys as nuisances or pests, many girls do seem concerned that boys should not suffer as a result of initiatives introduced by the school, even if the girls feel that they themselves benefit from such initiatives” (Jackson 2002, 43-44).
The danger in this continued emphasis on boys’ needs is its reciprocal effect on single-sex girls’ initiatives. One cannot have single-sex girls classes in a co-educational school without either also having boys’ single-sex classes, or having the remaining girls in mixed-classes being significantly outnumbered and thereby disadvantaged in their educational environment. If staff and administrators continue to emphasise the needs of boys, single-sex instruction for all students could be eliminated, regardless of its positive effect on female students. This should be a continued source of concern for advocates of all-girls’ educational opportunities, particularly those occurring within mixed-sex schools.
In conclusion, it is vital to the future of our country’s women that their education be given equal priority with that of males. As to the question, “single-sex or co-education: which is best for girls?” while the same environment will not be optimum for every girl, all-girls’ instruction is beneficial for many, and deserves a continued emphasis in our educational system.
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