Single-sex schools do not support a culture of gender equality

It seems that the world is taking more steps backwards. After over four decades of co-educational schooling nationwide, students at a school in Sweden returned from their Christmas holidays to find themselves split into single-sex classes. In defence of this change, school principal Anneli Widestrand appealed to the familiar argument employed by supporters of single-sex education: students, particularly girls, display different learning behaviours to their male peers and as such benefit more from a gender-segregation.

Posited as a move to break the ‘negative behavioural patterns’ that lead to institutional sexism, in a country where girls already outperform boys in schools, the experimental change can join a growing list of absurdities to take place in 2017.

Having myself enjoyed an exceptionally positive experience at an all-girls’ school, I could not wholeheartedly argue that single-sex education is harmful. The praises sung of all-girls’ schools can be entirely correct. A teaching staff rich with strong female role models? Check. An engaging introduction to feminism? Check. Endless encouragement that young women can follow the life-path of their choosing? All true. The harmful side to this topic lies in the suggestion that these standards are unachievable in a co-educational setting.

Such negative attitudes can be found in the most unlikely of places. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girl’s Day School Trust (the largest group of independent girls’ schools in the country) defended single-sex institutions on the basis that girls are intimidated by settings in which boys dominate, like group discussion.

In particular, Fraser emphasised the point that only in a single-sex environment are girls truly able to ‘take center stage’. Fraser further hinted to the controversial idea that boys and girls exhibit different learning styles, with boys more adept at practical application and girls comfortable with a traditional textbook style.

There are some important ideas to dismantle here. First off, substantial neuro-scientific evidence exists which contradicts the notion of gendered learning styles. Second, even if it is the case that boys lean towards dominating discussions, we do girls no favours by keeping them ignorant to this tendency until their first tutorial at university. On a larger scale, the same reasoning can be applied to increasing the female presence in STEM careers. If we are going to claim women shy away from STEM subjects because they are daunted by male-heavy workplaces, then the solution is not to shield women from male behaviour before it is too late to opt for a STEM profession.

Proponents of all-girls’ schooling would respond by stating that girls’ schools consistently top academic leadership boards and are more than twice as likely to see their students study physics, chemistry or engineering at university than other girls nationally. But behind these claims is the implication that girls’ schools in the UK are overwhelmingly more likely to be selective or private. When we look at it this way, it is glaringly obvious that the girls who produce the best exam results and graduate with a STEM degrees do so on account of being selected from more privileged backgrounds.

Nowadays, a third fewer girls’ schools exist than there were 20 years ago. This is for the best. I remember my single-sex school with extreme fondness, but to presuppose differences between groups of people is to reinforce gender stereotypes and discrimination. The vital purpose of school is to prepare students for adult life, but how can we do this when the organisation of our schools does not mirror our hopes for the future of society?

Image Credit: Royal Grammar School Eskdale Terrace

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