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Single-sex schools versus co-ed: Is one better than the other? Suffolk headteacher discusses research

PUBLISHED: 15:57 10 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:45 10 November 2017

Neil Tetley, headteacher at Woodbridge School. Picture: GENESIS PR

Neil Tetley, headteacher at Woodbridge School. Picture: GENESIS PR

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A deep-seated view in British education is that young people, particularly girls, do better academically in a single sex environment, writes Neil Tetley, headteacher at Woodbridge School in an opinion piece for this newspaper.

There are two main arguments put forward. The first is that boys and girls learn differently so are better being educated separately. The second is they won’t distract each other and can concentrate more on their academic progress. This has a strong emotional appeal to some parents who like the idea of their children being protected from the opposite sex. But is this really backed up by the evidence available?

Well one can find an educational study to support almost anything but arguably the most wide-ranging study done by Professor Alan Smithers which looked at evidence from around the world found that ‘half a century of research has not shown any dramatic or consistent advantages for single-sex education’. The commonly held view that single sex education brings academic advantage is reinforced by the league tables but these schools do so well because they are exceptionally selective not because of the fact they are single gender.

But what about the argument that boys and girls learn differently? Surely this is true? One can see it just by observing how boys and girls behave. Well yes up to a point they do learn differently. The problem is, it is more complicated than simply dividing learning styles by gender – not all boys behave in a particular way and neither do all girls. Professor Jo Ann Deak estimates that 80% of boys and girls exhibit gender ‘typical’ behaviour when it comes to learning (although even within this there are lots of variations) but 20% don’t. So even in a single sex environment a teacher has to allow for numerous learning styles. Good teaching is good teaching, whether it be of boys or girls.

Ok then surely boys and girls distract each other? I actually find this the least plausible of the arguments. Having spent about equal amounts of time teaching in single sex and co-educational schools, boys and girls are perfectly capable of being in a class with each other and concentrating at the same time. By far the biggest problem in schools is friendship issues (nearly always friends of the same sex) rather than becoming distracted by the opposite sex. Are all pupils in Finland (top or near the top of international league tables and where single sex education is almost unheard of) incapable of working as they are constantly distracted?

Does this mean co-educational schools are better than single sex schools? No absolutely not. There are great single sex schools and poor single sex schools, just as there are great co-educational schools and poor co-educational schools. What I am arguing is not that one is better than the other but a school is defined by factors other than gender.

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