Striking the gender balance in schools

The single sex or co-education debate is as fiery as ever. With so much at stake, Marie Cahalane looks at the reasons for transitioning to co-ed and the considerations that must not be overlooked

It’s a debate that never fails to divide – and there are obvious benefits on both sides. Co-education schools are often championed as places of equal opportunity and preparation for the real world; yet studies – such as that conducted by SchoolDash in 2015 – show that girls especially excel in a single-sex education environment. Why is this?

While there’s no definitive answer, many education experts believe that the two sexes learn differently. For example, girls excel at collaborative, discussion-based learning while boys tend to be dominant figures in such exercises. Single-sex education, then, enables educators to tailor lessons to the specific needs of students. Speaking with Charlotte Avery, president of the Girls’ Schools Association and headmistress of St Mary’s School, Cambridge, it’s clear she believes that what students need is confidence and self-esteem. “Girls who attend girls’ schools acquire both, specifically because they have every opportunity to pursue academic and extra-curricular interests, unrestricted by any gender stereotypes which might otherwise affect the choices they make.”

However, the argument for co-ed schools states that academic considerations are only half the story and that single-sex schools hamper the social progress of both girls and boys, can lead to an unrealistic view of the other sex and, further, that they pursue a gender-specific agenda and are thus less balanced than their co-ed counterparts. Currently, more schools are going co-ed. What are the reasons behind this – and are they right?

Raison d’être

“The big drive towards co-education in the independent sector was in the 1980s and 1990s when the vast majority of single sex boys’ schools began to take girls. The result is that, today, there are many more girls’ schools than boys’ schools,” Charlotte explains. Wondering why this shift occurred – and seems to be continuing – I ask Charlotte if this was a result of diminishing rolls in independent schools – whether going co-ed might be a means of effectively boosting the roll. She points out that this is a complex phenomenon and comes down to, “…economic climate, school reputation, a gradual shift in a particular location’s demographic profile, changes in public transportation” and that going co-ed can only boost numbers if the numbers are there in the first place.

Cheryl Giovannoni is chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) and – although none of the trust’s schools have gone co-ed – she observes that, “When schools go co-ed – usually a boys’ school admitting girls – the rationalisation, typically, focuses on the advantages for the school, in terms of pupil numbers and finances, and for the boys, in terms of socialisation, with little or no mention of the benefits to the girls.” This is a worry shared by Charlotte who notes the potential risks that need to be considered when transitioning – particularly if you are, for example, a girls’ school with high numbers of girls taking STEM subjects at A level. “One Institute of Physics study – It’s Different for Girls – has found that girls who attend single-sex independent schools are 1.5 times more likely to study physics at A level than girls who attend co-educational independent schools.”

Best of both worlds

For schools looking to expand and make financial efficiencies – for example applying economies of scale when procuring services or products – it’s clear that opening your doors to members of the opposite sex can certainly be a means of achieving this.

We recently spoke with the senior leadership and management team at New Hall School, Essex. In 2005 the school decided on a bold new expansion strategy which included going co-ed – but also adopting a diamond structure – a move that has seen the school roll grow by 150%. Charlotte describes the diamond structure as a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario, where junior teaching is co-ed, year seven to 11 girls and boys are educated separately and sixth form teaching returns to co-ed, effectively ‘closing’ the diamond.

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The Forest School, London, is the only diamond structure school in the city and for the school’s warden, Marcus Cliff Hodges, it is important to remember that a good school is not solely defined by what goes on in the classroom. The school is co-educational at all levels, with no fences dividing students during the school day. “In most co-educational classrooms you will see an environment dominated by stereotypical gendered behaviour: plenty of ‘laddish’ boys and more ‘compliant’ girls working more sensibly. In the single-sex classroom all such stereotypes can be confronted head on,” Marcus explains. The diamond structure, he says, offers students the “…benefits of the single-sex classroom for the younger years without missing out on all the other benefits of a co-educational school”.

Preparing for the future

Education provides strong foundations for vibrant and successful futures. While it is impossible to prescribe an ideal setting – single-sex or co-ed – it is evident that both have their benefits, for students and for schools. In a competitive market independent schools need to assess and do what is right for the school but the impact their choice can have on current and prospective students must be central to an action that is taken. As Charlotte says, “Anyone deciding to go co-ed will need to be extremely skilful and sensitive to translate all these benefits into the new environment.”

Best of both worlds

Case study: Forest School is an independent school on the edge of Epping Forest in northeast London. For over 40 years it has been a diamond structure school – a model which has evolved over time, and continues to do so.

In the classroom, both sexes are taught together until the age of seven, then separately from seven to 16 after which they combine for a joint sixth form. Outside of the classroom academic trips, visits and some co-curricular activities are joint ventures. We got the detail from warden Marcus Cliff Hodges.

Forest School started to admit girls 40 years ago; was there a particular reason for this?

No, it was in response to demand from the parents of girls wanting their daughters to join their sons at Forest. Numbers have grown since then to the point where we have equal numbers of boys and girls throughout the school from 4-18 (680 boys; 680 girls).

Why does the diamond structure remain the right approach for Forest School students?

It creates a comfortable learning space for students to develop the sort of learning characteristics they need. It allows them to work unselfconsciously and enables us to work on those comparatively weaker aspects of boys’ and girls’ learning that hold back so many of them.

Boys and girls are taught in the same classrooms by the same teachers following the same curriculum, but just not at the same time. Lesson content, teaching style, the range of activities, pace, can all be adapted to get the best out of any given group.

Then, in the sixth form, where the focus becomes preparing for life after school, all students come together for lessons at an age when they are more confident in themselves and more mature in their approach to academic work.

Do you find that this structure broadens horizons and learning opportunities for students?

This structure certainly favours the individual. At Forest there’s less sense of any pupil being atypical because there is less emphasis on any need for anyone to be typical. Diamond structure schools are mostly big schools which can offer an extensive range of opportunities inside and outside the classroom.

Again, pupils can choose subjects and activities to suit their interests and aptitudes. There’s no one type of pupil at Forest and we don’t want there to be – our model of the diamond structure encourages diversity and, by its nature, celebrates difference – with one result being that both teachers and pupils are more tuned-in to the way gender can present itself in endless different models and behaviours.

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