There is no difference in the academic attainment of boys and girls in mixed or single sex schools. But there may be differences in social and emotional intelligence, and self-confidence.
A mixed or a single sex school? The number one question
Should I send my child to a mixed (co-educational) or single sex school? That’s one of the first considerations of a parent when choosing a school. And many agonise over it.
They are caught between two negative perceptions. The first is that mixed education is hampered by distractions of the opposite sex. The second is that single sex education is somehow Victorian and regressive.
And there are passionate advocates championing the merits of either model. There are thousands of academic research papers on the topic. Those promoting single sex schools claim that their academic results are better. Those promoting coeducational schools claim that only they can nurture emotional and social development.
Why do people get so heated about it? Parents, unfairly, project their own experiences of a generation ago. Teachers, particularly at girls only schools, hold onto the socially progressive ideals that created schools for girls and universal suffrage. After all, isn’t sexism still pervasive? At the same time, why do we tolerate gender segregation in schools but not in any other walk of life?
The reality is that today 96% of UK schools are co-educational. Most of those who seek a single sex education have to pay for it or go to an academically selective state school.
As for academic attainment, there is no consensus of evidence to prove that either model is better than the other. The real difference between mixed and single sex education is the pupil’s self and social development.
Furthermore, most head teachers agree that a good school succeeds primarily because of its management, teaching and culture, not its gender mix.
Those last three paragraphs are the conclusions of the article in a nutshell. What follows is a series of responses to parents’ questions from the first version of this article back in 2017.
Are girls more intelligent than boys?
In short, probably. The current consensus is that girls have a higher IQ up to puberty, when boys catch up. Also, girls perform better in exams, up to puberty, when boys catch up. Here’s some examples to demonstrate.
- An analysis of boys’ and girls’ IQs showed than girls had a higher score by 1.2 points at age seven. By age 11 this difference had narrowed to 0.8 points. And then, by age 16 the boys score had overtaken the girls score by 1.5 points. This analysis was based on a longitudinal sample of 17,419 children in the National Child Development Study and published in Psychology Today in 2010.
- At age 11 girls outperform boys by 8-10% in UK SATS exams. The measure is percentage of pupils reaching the required standard in reading, writing and maths.
- In 2019 25.3% of girls achieved Grades 7-9 in GCSEs, compared to 18.6% of boys. The equivalent results in 2018 (for English and maths only) were 24.6% for girls and 18.5% for boys.
- In 2019 25.5% of girls achieved A* or A Grades at A Level, compared to 25.4% for boys. The equivalent results in 2018 were 26.0% for girls and 26.4 % for boys.
Of course, exam results are the source of many newspaper headlines and column inches every year. Unfortunately, the excitement and hyperbole over small margins informs opinions and clouds an important issue.
If girls are at least as clever as boys why are they underrepresented in government, board rooms, the judiciary and academia? And why does the gender pay gap persist?
Are girls less confident than boys?
There is some evidence that boys (and men) are more likely to exaggerate their abilities than girls (and women). Even worse, girls may understate their abilities.
A 2019 study of 40,000 pupils by GL Assessment suggested that at age 11 only 27% of girls consider themselves “very clever”. This compares to 34% for boys. Even though girls outperform by 8-10% in SATS (see above).
27% of girls say they don’t know the meaning of words, compared to 21% for boys. And 26% of girls say they feel unconfident when undertaking new or unfamiliar work, compared to 20% of boys.
The study also found that there was no significant change in confidence between 11-year old and 16-year old girls.
Addressing this self-confidence issue is at the core of the justification for single sex schools.
Do single sex schools outperform co-educational schools academically?
You might expect, therefore, that girls in girls only schools will perform better in exams than girls in mixed schools. Judging by GCSE and A Level results, this has not been proven over the long term.
It’s the same story for boys. Boys do no better or worse as a result of a single sex or mixed education.
If true, this suggests that boys and girls in mixed schools are not a detrimental distraction for each other. Particularly at crucial exam times. Which addresses possibly the biggest parental fear of co-education.
Champions of single sex education observe that single sex schools dominate the annual school league table leader boards. And they are right. Except that by historical quirk, many of the UK’s academically selective schools are also single sex.
It is this selectivity, within a good teaching environment, that accounts for the schools’ high rankings, not their gender mix. The most influential researcher on this topic, Professor Alan Smithers, found no link between co-educational and single sex schools and educational attainment.
There have been countless international studies to try to prove superior academic performance of one model over the other. There’s always a study to prove or disprove one way or the other. But the balance of evidence is that there is no difference.
The fundamental problem for researchers is that they can’t put identical children through different schools and measure the outcomes. Furthermore, they must allow for other factors that might also influence academic performance, such as ethnicity, socioeconomics, and parental support.
Back in 2010 The American Council on Education was unequivocal in its position. “Bridging the academic achievement gap between different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups deserves more attention than does the gender divide.”
Do girls and boys do better in different subjects?
“Women are naturally suited to domestic work and not spheres suited to men such as politics, science, or business”. So said Thomas Gisborne, a priest, poet, and anti-slavery campaigner, in 1801.
This gender bias persists even though male and female roles have converged. Today the factoid is that boys are better at maths and girls are better at English. Or that boys are better at science and girls are better at languages and the arts.
None of which is substantiated by fact, merely by cod-psychology, and reinforced by media commentary when exam results are released. I don’t think anyone, on either side of the debate, believes that there are boys only or girls only subjects.
Recently, Ofsted banned the practice of offering boys and girls different subjects in mixed schools. Some schools used to offer, say, product design and resistant materials to boys, and cookery and textiles to girls. Now all pupils must be offered the same subjects.
The law is less vigilant on sport, though the same principle applies. It is only a matter of time before schools will have to offer girls rugby, football, and cricket if they offer it to boys. Similarly, they will have to offer boys netball, lacrosse, and rounders if they offer it to girls.
Do boys and girls learn in different ways?
Proponents of single sex education often claim that boys and girls learn differently. That male and female brains work in a different way.
Observations supporting this claim include that girls can sit at desks for longer than boys. Boys have a shorter attention span. That girls are more collaborative in a group setting, whereas boys want to dominate. Boys have to be more active and physical. Girls work steadily and methodically whereas boys leave work/revision till the last possible moment. Girls work best in a warm room, boys in a cooler room. And so on.
All of which may be true, have an element of truth, or could apply to both sexes. But somehow, as a result, there is a notion of a boy-centred or a girl-centred curriculum. At its most crass it suggests that all boys need more sport and outdoor activity than all girls. At its most subtle it suggests that boys read Hamlet and girls read Jane Eyre. You see it sometimes in marketing literature; “We understand boys” or “We know how to educate girls”.
It always strikes me as a strange claim. Does the same piece of information have to be communicated differently to boys and girls? Should we infer that teachers in mixed schools don’t understand boys, or don’t know how to educate girls?
Current developmental psychology research refutes that boys and girls learn differently. The emphasis is that the differences between boys and between girls are greater than the differences across the sexes.
This means that is more challenging to teach both a meek child and an alpha child than it is to teach a boy and girl of similar disposition.
Do girls do better in a single sex school?
“Do better” has two connotations. In terms of girls’ exam results, they are the same in a single sex or mixed school. But in terms of developing self-confidence, there is a strong argument in favour of girls only schools.
To be fair, this is the position argued by practitioners such as the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) and the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST). They argue that in a single sex environment, girls are more likely to study traditionally male subjects such as science. They say that girls only schools “minimise stereotyped, gender-weighted expectations”. As such, according to the GSA website, girls in their schools are;
- 75% more likely to take Maths A-level,
- 70% more likely to take Chemistry A-level,
- two and a half times as likely to take Physics A-level,
- over twice as likely to take most languages A-levels.
This is why you’ll see so many girls only schools pushing STEM subjects; science, technology, engineering, and maths.
Girls only schools also claim that girls develop more confidence in the absence of boys. They are able to assume positions of responsibility and express themselves intellectually and physically away from the scrutiny of boys. According to Alan Smithers’ research, women from single sex schools earn more than women from co-educational schools.
A co-educational school would offer a counterargument. They would say that in a mixed school, girls are more likely to try traditionally male pursuits. Girls football and cricket, for starters. It may be because the facilities are already there for the boys. It may be due to the more mature and socially progressive attitudes that pupils have at mixed schools.
Do boys do better in a single sex school?
As mentioned above, boys’ exam results are similar in single sex and mixed schools.
As for self-confidence, evidence is more anecdotal. There is less research on boys only schools and what there is is less compelling.
Some studies show that boys become more confident in an environment where they aren’t compared to smarter girls. Others conclude that boys develop more self-confidence through adolescent years away from the scrutiny of girls.
It’s not clear to me, however, that boys only schools offer “traditionally stereotyped and gender-weighted” activities. Coeducationalists argue that it is boys in mixed schools that are more likely to try dance, singing and drama.
There is an International Boys’ School Coalition. However, it concerns itself with best practice and continuous improvement rather than arguing the case for boys only schools.
Are mixed schools better for developing social skills and emotional intelligence?
Behind this question is the observation that society is mixed. To get on in life, professionally, socially, and emotionally, children must learn how to get on with the opposite sex. A mixed school creates opportunities for respectful interaction between boys and girls every day. A single sex school does not.
Supporters of mixed schools often use examples of either sex mollifying or ameliorating the excesses of the other. The girl with the quick-fire comeback cutting the boorish and chauvinist boy down to size. The calming influence of a boy stopping a spiteful row between girls.
Maybe so, but many parents will relate their experiences of single sex education hampering their ability to make friends with the opposite sex. Single sex schools claim to mitigate this by offering joint dances, projects or events with nearby boys’ or girls’ school. Of course, this unnatural setting only serves to charge the interaction. Interactions in a mixed school are more quotidian, casual, even humdrum.
But does a single sex education actually hamper a child’s ability to relate to the opposite sex? There are some snippets of evidence of long-term outcomes. University students from single sex schools have more difficulty interacting with the opposite sex. However, adults taught at single sex schools are no more or less likely to marry than those taught at mixed schools. Unfortunately, men who went to single sex schools are more likely to divorce in their 40s.
Do boys and girls distract each other in a mixed school?
It is a fact of life that some teenage boys and girls will be attracted to each other. Not all pupils have boyfriends and girlfriends in or out of school, but some do.
Will your child be distracted for a short time by someone of the opposite sex at school? Possibly. Is it a good life lesson to learn how to cope with it? Probably. Will they be distracted to the detriment of their exams and future prospects? Unlikely.
As discussed earlier, exam results of boys and girls are similar in single sex and mixed schools. This suggests that there is no widescale negative impact of boys and girls learning together.
Testimonies of teachers in mixed schools suggest that very few pupils actually pair up. They also observe that boys and girls in mixed schools socialise mainly in same sex friendship groups. Which is an argument a single sex school might make!
Do pupils suffer with exam stress more in single sex or mixed schools?
A popular perception is pupils in single sex schools are more competitive with each other than in mixed schools. This competition, typically academic, leads to excessive stress and anxiety around exam times.
There have been a few studies testing this perception. And some support it. But just as many refute it, supporting the contrary view. Which is, that pupils in single sex schools are more supportive than same-sex pupils in a mixed school. Which leads to less pupil stress at a single sex school than a co-educational school.
Another blank. But it could be that competitive exam stress is more likely in an academically selective school. Many just so happen to be single sex.
Are pupils more likely to be bullied in a single sex school?
The negative stereotype of boys only schools is that they encourage testosterone fuelled, sports mad, chauvinists. The negative stereotype of a girls only school is that they encourage appearance obsessed, spiteful bullies.
A school that matches these stereotypes would be called out very quickly and shut down. Bullying happens in every school. A well-managed school will have excellent pastoral care practices to quickly identify and deal with bullying. And a decent PSHE programme to help prevent it.
Are Diamond Schools the best of both worlds?
If you happen to live near one of the 13 “Diamond Schools”, you could have the best of both worlds.
Diamond Schools educate boys and girls together in the early years, separately at 11-16, then together again from 16-18, the sixth form. Schools vary in the age at which they teach the sexes separately. Usually it’s 11-16, but it can also be 7-16 or even 5-16. They are all independent.
In this way, boys and girls learn how to work alongside each other through primary years. They can develop self-confidence, away from opposite sex scrutiny through the adolescent years. And come together again to learn as confident young adults.
But are Diamond Schools just a fudge? Are they an accident of a previous boys and girls school merging? A marketing spin on legacy facility location? Are they just pandering to parents with outdated misconceptions?
Maybe. But they offer a choice. And their pupils are successful academically and socially. More than in single sex schools or mixed schools? There’s no data.
How many single sex and coeducational schools are there in the UK?
If the overwhelming majority of schools were single sex at the beginning of the 1900s, UK education is now predominantly mixed. In Scotland, for example, there’s only one single sex school, and there are only four in Wales.
Of the 23,000 mainstream primary schools in the UK 98.5% are mixed. And of the 307 single sex schools 96% are independent preps. So, if you want a single sex education for your primary age child, you have to go to an English private school.
80% of secondary schools are mixed. Of the 764 that are single sex schools 56% are state and 44% are independent. Put another way, 35% of independent secondary schools are single sex, compared to 14% of state secondaries.
The numbers might lead us to think that there is institutional support for separating boys and girls in the formative teenage years. Except that there are other factors at play. Religion, for example. Many independent single sex schools have a strong religious ethos. Discounting these cultural traditions leaves 10% of independent secondary schools that promote single sex education on its own merit. Discounting those schools with mixed sixth forms reduces the number to 8%.
It’s a similar story for state secondaries, except the muddying factor is academic selection. Many single sex schools, for historical reasons, are also academically selective. Discounting these leaves 6% of state secondaries.
In other words, if you want a single sex secondary state school, you’ll have to take academic selection too. If you’re prepared to pay for a single sex independent school, you’ll have to take religion too. And a mixed sixth form.
Are there more girls only than boys only schools?
Single sex education is weighted in favour of girls’ schools. 60% of single sex preps are girls only, and 40% are boys only. But many of those single sex preps have mixed nurseries and 12% have mixed pre-preps. A mixed pre-prep is often a precursor to going fully co-educational.
In secondary education 60% of single sex state schools are girls only. For independent schools, the proportion rises to 70%.
The number of single sex independent schools continues to decline
Numbers have halved since the 1990s as schools switched to co-education. Since 2016, some 38 independent schools have switched to mixed; 11 senior schools, 20 prep and 7 all-through schools. Even two Diamond Schools have converted to fully mixed.
Twice as many girls’ schools have converted than have boys’ schools, perhaps reflecting their greater number. It’s worth noting that 11 of the 27 prep and junior schools already had mixed pre-preps.
Why is the number of single sex schools seemingly in terminal decline? Maybe the academic and social case for boys only or girls only schools isn’t as compelling as for co-education. Or maybe the case for single sex schools in many areas of the country is so marginal as to be outweighed by economic considerations. If I ran a school, I would certainly find it hard to turn away 50% of willing and known customers.
Will single sex schools disappear altogether? Not unless they’re legislated against.
The majority of single sex schools are located within geographic proximity of a single sex school of the opposite sex. Many are part of the same foundation. There is no need for either to convert to co-education.
The most vulnerable single sex schools are those that are remote from other schools and where parents are making trips to different schools for different sex siblings.
The pros and cons of single sex and mixed schools
In conclusion, after a long exploration of the claims and counter claims, the pros and cons are simple. In this case one school’s pro is another school’s con. The differences between the two types of school is very slight. But the pro of a mixed school is that boys and girls learn how to relate to each other. The pro of a single sex school is that boys and girls can develop self-confidence without gender expectation bias and without the scrutiny of the other sex.
Parents should also be wary when a school’s only point of differentiation is its gender mix. A school is good irrespective of whether it is girls only, boys only or co-educational.
There are enough passionate advocates of co-educational teaching or single sex teaching to ensure that the debate will rumble on for years to come. For too many parents it is the most important criteria for choosing a school. It shouldn’t be.
I would recommend two thought leaders for further reading. Professor Alice Sullivan at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute for Education, University College London, and Professor Alan Smithers at Buckingham University.