The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling: do single-sex schools really make pupils more sexist?

I wish that I could gain access to the full study published in this month’s edition of Science journal which appears to conclude that single-sex education is bad, wrong, immoral, not worth it – you can imagine the tone. As the website of the American Association of the Advancement of Science, who publish Science does not allow free access to the whole article, I have had to make do with the summary, and with the number of press articles (including in the Telegraph) picking up the highlights (possibly from edited press releases, although I would hope that the AAAS have given education journalists access to the full report).

I would love to read the whole article, partly because I enjoy soaking up research on anything to do with education, but partly too because I am extremely curious to see what makes the authors of this report so certain of their conclusion. I have no issue with them claiming that ‘there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex (SS) education improves students’ academic performance’, as I suspect that they are probably right – how would one design such research in a way that was ethically and practically acceptable? Besides, each young person is a unique individual; how can we ever be certain that what works for one person will work for another? And at what point in their life could we take a stand and draw a conclusion about the effect of their school experience – at 18, 30, 65? And how would we distinguish their experience of schooling from all the other experiences they will have had in their lives? And how could we pull apart all the very, very many aspects that make up education or schooling anyway: different teachers, teachers at different times of the day, teachers at different stages of their lives, teachers with different life stories who interact with their charges in different ways as a result – and so on, to name but a few?

I do, however, have a problem with the authors of this report claiming that this lack of scientific evidence makes single-sex education ‘deeply misguided’. If there is no evidence to suggest that single-sex education is better or worse than co-ed education, as they claim, then the same must be true of co-education. And what evidence are they drawing on to conclude that ‘sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism’? This is so far removed from my experience of single-sex education that I find it completely perplexing. When a statistical analysis conducted by the Girls’ Schools Association shows that, ‘compared to all girls nationally, in GSA schools over 70% more girls took A level maths; over 50% more girls took a science at A level; over 90% more girls took a physical science (physics or chemistry) at A level; over 80% more girls studied French, German or Spanish at A level.’, then you have to wonder how the authors of this new report came to their conclusion. Surely they haven’t fallen into the trap of judging schools today by the outcomes of schools several decades ago, when our social history was very different?

The aspect of the report, though, which caused me quite simply to put the report out of my mind and file its conclusions as verging on opinion rather than fact is the affiliation of all of its authors: ‘All authors are founders and uncompensated board members of the nonprofit American Council for CoEducational Schooling.’ As I said in my letter to the Telegraph the day after the news was published, which was sent on behalf of the Girls’ Schools Association, I sense a strong self-interest here in the research group reaching such a radical conclusion. What a shame that this should undermine a legitimate research goal.

By all means let us keep researching the area of single-sex education, as every other part of education, in the search for what helps young people learn and grow into well-rounded, well-grounded young adults. Let us debate, let us share experience, let us develop good practice. But let us recognise too that in a healthy national and international education system there will always be sufficient choice for parents to be able to find the right place at the right time for their daughters and their sons, and a part of this must be choice in schools with different gender balances. I know some great single-sex schools, and I lead one myself. The girls emerge as amazingly well-balanced human beings, with a self-knowledge and ease of being which surpasses most of their expectations, and those of their parents. I would defy any of the researchers to come and experience my girls’ school and still think single-sex education was even remotely ‘misguided’!

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