Single-sex schools: The case for and against

Last updated on Saturday, August 01, 2015
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“Look for a girls-only school, it will make her more homely” exclaimed one of my grandmom’s friend while another countered “how will she find a groom if she wouldn’t know how to talk to boys; lesbian bana hai kya?” as they sipped their tea and enjoyed their routine bingo game. Their unsolicited advice was offered when they learned that I am looking for a school for my daughter.

Given their own backgrounds ranged from hardly educated to not formally educated at all, I shunned their comments and got on with my day. But the controversial topic of single-sex education, what it is and who is it for didn’t seem to have left my mind. That night while picking up my bedtime read I found John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” particularly staring at me. Over the next few days, I found myself in the company of authors such as Lise Eliot, Louann Brizendine, Abigail Norfleet James and Leonard Sax as some of their books including “Pink Brain, Blue Brain”, “The Female Brain”, “Teaching the Female Brain: How Girls Learn Math and Science”, “Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School” and “Why Gender Matters” piled up on my coffee table.

 

This article is a brief summary of my understanding of single-sex schools that involved intense discussions with family, friends and friends of friends that went to all-girls or all-boys schools, reading up several books including their follow-up releases and editions and a lot of internet research including spending hours at some of the leading national and international single-sex school websites. And of course the countless cups of coffee to get me through this!

 

Single-sex schools: Simply defined

As the name suggests single-sex schools, also known as single-sex schools or single-gender schools, are schools that provide education to only one gender. While, the student diversity takes an obvious hit, the sections below offer perspective on some of the other considerations.

 

Single-sex school concept seems to be unpopular in Gurgaon with hardly any popular school following this norm. So if you are a Gurgaon parent looking for a local school, you can stop reading. But if you are elsewhere or happy to send your child to a boarding school – read on.

Gender difference: hardwired or not?

The premise of single-sex schools is partly based on gender differences that may exist between boys and girls. Such differences are touted as observed facts by many authors and shunned by many researchers and vice versa. So I haven’t managed to get a conclusive answer yet. However, below are some fascinating facts and theories that left an impression on me:

  • Girls and boys may literally be seeing the world differently: A study by Israel Abramov claimed that a women’s eyes are more perceptive to colour changes, while a man’s eyes are more sensitive to moving objects and small details. Boys seem to be more interested in looking at moving objects, while girls seem to be born interested in faces.
  • Similarly boys and girls hear differently: Based on some research girls hear better than boys, especially in the range of certain frequencies.

Gender difference advocates believe that to maximise results the education setup needs to be optimised for the specific gender. For example, the seating arrangement or the aids used for teaching should be different for boys and girls based on the above two theories that can effectively be put to practice only in single-sex schools. It is also easier for the teachers to be trained to use techniques geared towards the gender of their students.

Distraction-free or socially awkward?

Another possible premise for single-sex schools is to provide a relaxed learning environment that is free of distraction of the opposite sex. Many theories and research exist on how the opposite sex can be a distraction especially at certain ages of adolescence. Having studied in a co-education schools all my life, I can certainly remember instances when the trigonometry that the math professor was teaching seemed less-important than the distance between me and a cute boy who sat a few benches away or the angle of our sights on each other. I also remember being distracted when he started dating my friend instead of me.

It is believed that competitiveness tends to soften and students become more collaborative in a single sex setting. It is also common knowledge that girls behave differently when with their girl-gang and when in presence of the opposite sex. Similarly boys can just be themselves and not worry about what the girls might think. This funny TV commercial below offers a light-hearted portal of how the opposite sex can be a distraction and how it effects the behaviour for their more mature versions and a momentary break from this heavy topic (please excuse the advertised brand, as it may not be appropriate to our context and topic).

 

While one thought could be that social pressures are gentler with controlled social outlets with the opposite sex, the counter argument is that regular interaction with the opposite sex avoids social awkwardness that is not uncommon among students that lack experiences with the other sex. It limits the experiences they could collect by coexisting and cooperatively working together. Arguably there is also a higher risk that students deprived of association and interaction with the opposite sex develop greater attraction for them as fantasy figures and behave irresponsibly when the contact does come about.

Gender stereotypes: breaking them or not?

My school’s boys’ soccer team was one of the best in the region, but a girls’ soccer team never existed in the history of the school – that was a coeducational school. Similarly, there were hardly any boys in the humanities section and the handful that were there, were mocked on for choosing the so called ‘feminine’ subjects. Such are the stereotypes that exist in many coeducational schools.

Having explored the websites of over a dozen single-sex schools, I can say that single-sex schools seem to be breaking many of these stereotypes with provision for a range of appropriate activities and events. Be it field or indoor sports, trainers and instructors or choice of curricular subjects. For example, boys in boys-only schools further their interests in conventionally ‘feminine’ considered subjects such as performing arts, poetry and fashion designing without any shame. Similarly, most good girls-only schools have provision for and encourage their students to take up field sports such as soccer, athletics, horse riding etc. without being typecasted as less feminine.

It’s about choice and you have it

Probably gender appropriate teaching, instruction and parental involvement are all things that come into play for a good education. But in the end, I am still left wondering how much can be attribute to each individually. While this article takes a gender specific look, the idea is to discuss considerations associated with schools and how it might be better or worse for a child. You as a parent should evaluate based on the personality of your child and choose the environment that will best support your individual child.

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