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Headmaster's Blog

Why co-education is best

The debate around single sex education has flared up in educational circles again of recent weeks.

The Head of Guildford High School – a very good girls’ school – has said too much emphasis is put on the value of segregated learning when what really matters is the quality of the school overall. Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, and himself a former head of a boys’ school, has been quoted similarly.

As someone who has taught in both boys’ and girls’ schools, as well as co-educational environments, I have to say I agree with my colleagues.

The research in this area is sparse and what little evidence there is does not offer conclusive results – but the suggestion is that single sex teaching works because boys and girls do not get distracted by one another in those critical teenage years!

Another often rehearsed argument is that, in a co-educational setting, it can be difficult to encourage boys to take up subjects traditionally seen as the preserve of girls – e.g. languages or English – and, vice versa, the take-up of sciences by girls can be poor.

The flaws in this line of thinking seem clear to me. Quite apart from the implicit, sweeping generalisation that all boys and all girls are the same and respond in the same way when corralled into groups, surely the reality of the world of higher education and work should tell us that single-sex education is no longer a sound preparation for life.

In my parents’ generation, when young people left formal education, they went into a workplace that largely mirrored their schooling: men worked in male-only environments and women, if they worked at all outside the home, worked with other women. But even by the 1980’s, when I was serving in the Army, these distinctions had disappeared and there were senior-ranking women serving alongside men, as in many other areas of life and work.

Society has changed dramatically in this respect and the change is now long established, it is certainly the reality with which our young people will be faced and we need to prepare them to flourish in it, not shield them from it. In the 21st century, arguments for same sex education are simply arguments for history.

There may be no genuinely credible evidence from research on which to base an argument but there certainly is the reality of the world around us. In my career, I have seen very able students from single sex schools have their confidence rocked at university by the sheer shock of the gender mix – but I have also observed how girls and boys, learning together, can build the vital self confidence, respect and relational skills that enable them to thrive both socially and academically.

Based on that reality, denying the opportunity for girls and boys to learn together is surely a failure in our core purpose as educators, which is to prepare young people for life. 

Rod MacKinnon
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School