In 2016, the headteacher of Brighton College made headlines when he suggested that students at girls’ schools were at a ‘huge disadvantage’ as they would grow up unable to communicate with the opposite sex. This was met with uproar from single-sex school proponents. But how well-founded are the advantages of a single-sex education and, on top of the expected hefty school fee, what are the social costs of this form of education?

One of the most attractive claims is that a single-sex education produces better examination results, leading to a platter of university offers and job opportunities in the future. Whilst studies have shown that girls from single-sex schools on average earn slightly higher wages in later life as well as being more likely to study male-dominated STEM subjects, no conclusive evidence links single-sex education with academic success.

A report titled The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling suggests that:

‘sex segregated education is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence’.

As single-sex schools are often selective upon entry, academic achievement is to be expected. Due to these schools being predominantly private schools, these are students who are more likely to come from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, with support from their parents. The success could also be a result of the promotion of extracurricular activities, simply because private schools and private school parents can afford this.

A study by Haertel found levels of high student achievement in classrooms with greater cohesiveness, goal direction and less disorganisation and friction. This is not something that is necessarily determined by sex segregation, and can arguably be achieved in most schools.

Worryingly, the normalisation of segregation from an early age has been known to legitimise institutionalised sexism and increase gender stereotyping.

In the early 2000s in America, the federal No Child Left Behind law promoted single-sex classes in public schools. This was in an attempt to help underprivileged groups access the academic ‘benefits’ of a single-sex education and achieve their potential.

Emily J. Martin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project understands how damaging this perceived step back in terms of gender equality can be for girls and boys later in life. She succinctly explained this in one interview, saying that: ‘single-sex education isn’t the best preparation for a coeducational world‘.

This is equally problematic for boys who spend a lot of time with other boys, as they are more likely to display aggressive behaviours. If they are isolating girls because they do not spend time with them at school, it also becomes easier for them to accept gendered stereotypes.

A wave of boys’ schools have in recent years admitted girls for the sixth-form years. However, it often works out that the ratio of boys to girls will be largely in the boys’ favour. This does very little to address the problem of integration and does not provide an accurate representation of adult life. In fact, it might undo some of the work done in earlier schooling of encouraging girls into male-dominated subjects.

In an interview, Mike Younger, Head of Education at Cambridge University warned of the need to avoid: ‘an intimidating atmosphere for other boys […] and to be alert to the dangers of generating a homophobic environment’ — a feature completely unwelcome in the modern workplace. He also emphasised the need, ‘to beware of girls becoming aggressive towards each other’.

Resulting in a lack of experience when it comes to working cooperatively with the opposite sex, single-sex schooling does not benefit the workplace or a person’s future relationships. It is to be expected that the workplace especially will be diverse with its own trail of problems. A lack of experience of working with the opposite sex does not need to contribute to this.

Instead of treating school as preparation for the real world, the support for single-sex schools on the basis of their academic excellence is making education all about figures, rather than nourishing the development of a young adult. Schools play a crucial developmental role in socialisation. Through normalising friendship with the other sex from a young age, they act as a preventative measure for unhealthy attitudes in the future.

Psychologist Oliver James identified 15-year-old girls who were at high-performing schools, as the most unhappy demographic in England or Ireland. This was partly due to the greater exam stress that they experienced compared to boys.

Interestingly though, for boys, later in life, single-sex schooling was linked to a dislike of school more so than for girls.

Adding to this, a study in Britain in 2007 demonstrated that men in their early 40s who had attended single-sex schools were more likely to be divorced than their co-educational counterparts.

Although, women who attended single-sex schools were no more or less likely to marry and there was also no influence on childbearing. Interestingly, attending a single-sex school did not make the prospect of teenage pregnancy any less likely.

A 2019 study found that current single-sex students scored higher on all forms of mixed-gender anxiety. Graduates from single-sex schools also scored higher on anxiety in dating situations and in casual mixed-gender groups, and this rippled into adulthood. A follow-up study was then done looking at the impact of co-education on these students when at college. In their final year of college, all the differences to do with anxiety between single-sex and co-educational graduates remained. This indicates that the effects of single-sex schooling are long-lasting and felt into adulthood.

The school years are an extremely formative part of the psychological development of a young person. The anxieties that burden adults from these days are difficult to untangle. Whilst every child has unique needs, the ultimate justification of schooling is to provide the best start for a child. The pseudo-experimental environment of a single-sex school arguably nurtures unhealthy attitudes towards the opposite sex.

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