Single-Sex Schools Struggle to Hang On

Facing Threats in Spite of Their Proven Advantages

AURORA, New York, OCT. 16, 2004 ( Debate over the future of single-sex education is heating up, with its future under threat in several countries. In Spain the Socialist government has hinted it will challenge the status of such schools, the daily La Vanguardia reported Oct. 5.

Education Minister María San Segundo announced that at some stage the government would examine the issue of whether schools that separate the sexes are legal. The minister declared that all schools that accept public funds should reflect social conditions in matters such as immigrants and coeducation.

Commenting on the minister’s remarks, Isabel Bazo and Manuel de Castro, respectively president and secretary-general of two organizations in the education field (La Confederación Española de Centros de Enseñanza and La Federación Española de Religiosos de Enseñanza-Centros Católicos), defended the liberty of schools to have students of just one sex. Such centers, noted Bazo, stem from a specific educational and pedagogical approach.

Meanwhile, in the United States, students at Wells College, a university-level institution in Aurora, New York, are protesting the school’s decision to go coed, the Associated Press reported Oct. 6. The 136-year-old school for women will start admitting men in 2005. On Oct. 4 around 150 students, nearly half of those enrolled, gathered outside the school’s offices to protest, after the trustees had decided the previous Saturday to let men in. The school says it needs more students to be financially viable.

According to Leslie Miller-Bernal, a professor at Wells, there are now fewer than 60 all-women’s colleges in the country, half of them Catholic. As recently as 1980, there were more than 120 such colleges.

In England, the number of single-sex schools has declined in recent years. The number of children educated in single-sex schools has fallen by almost 8,000 in five years, the London-based Telegraph reported July 11. Official figures show that 15 single-sex schools have shut since 1998. At least four more are under threat of closure, said the newspaper.

The report came just after it was announced that two single-sex schools in Gloucestershire will be replaced by a mixed institution. Parents were critical of the move. In fact, almost 70% of parents who responded to a consultation on the change voted to keep the single-sex schools.

Gill Pyatt, head teacher at Barnwood Park High School for Girls, said that the benefits of single-sex education were substantial. “Our girls can work without distraction,” she said. As well, the belief that children needed mixed schools to teach them to communicate with the opposite sex was outmoded. “Our girls have a social life, there is plenty of that outside of school time, but in class, they concentrate on academic work,” she explained.

According to the Telegraph there are just over 400 single-sex schools in England, down from about 2,000 in the late 1960s, out of a total of 3,400 secondary and middle schools.

Separation defended

Whether to separate students has been a lively topic of debate in Spain during past months. One of those stepping in to defend single-sex schools is French sociologist Michel Fize. In 2003 Fize published a book criticizing mixed schools, titled “Les Pièges de la Mixité Scolaire.”

In a March 30 article in the Spanish daily ABC, Fize argued that parents should be able to choose whether to send their children to single-sex or coed schools. French schools are seeing more and more problems of sexual aggression, as well as declining academic results, noted Fize.

He argued that coeducation should be judged not on ideological grounds but on whether it is effective. Coeducation, he explained, triumphed its role in bringing about equality between the sexes. However, it failed to take into account the different speed at which the two sexes mature.

Interviewed by the Vanguardia on Sept. 15, Fize declared that his principal objection to coeducation is that it is taken as a dogma that is rigidly imposed, regardless of its disadvantages. Fize does not see much problem with mixed schools when children are younger. The problem, he said, arises once they reach adolescence. At this stage, he explained, many girls feel vulnerable when they have to study side by side with boys.

Fize argued that for adolescents the best system would be to enable students to choose between single-sex or coed schools. Forcing them into coeducation is nothing less than psychological violence, he declared.

Public-sector experiment

Curiously enough, it is in the public schools that separating sexes is enjoying greater support. On Monday the Associated Press reported that Stonewall Jackson Middle School, a public-sector school in West Virginia, decided to separate its 610 students into single-sex classes for a part of the day.

Federal government rules from 1972 prohibited gender discrimination in public schools, thus ensuring coeducation would be the norm. But the new federal law on education, “No Child Left Behind,” which came into force in 2002 allows single-sex classrooms if comparable curricula and facilities are available to both sexes.

At Stonewall Jackson, officials decided to separate students in grades six through eight for classes in English, math, science and social studies. There are now 147, out of 91,000 public schools, opting for single-sex classes this year, the AP reported.

Another public school to test the waters with separating students is Arapahoe High, located in the state of Colorado. The school is now offering students single-gender classes in math, reading, life skills and swimming, the Denver Post reported Sept. 19.

Teachers are hoping this will improve boys’ performance, which has fallen behind their female counterparts in every category, said the principal, Ron Booth. “Boys and girls are different and they learn differently, so why shouldn’t we try teaching them differently to focus on their strengths?” he asked.

The Denver Post cited studies from the National Charter School Clearinghouse showing that in small-scale studies, conducted largely on the West Coast, student grade-point averages for both sexes increase in seventh and eighth grades when genders are separated. The studies also showed that girls became more competitive or bolder in the classroom, while boys worked better together as a team.

And in Australia, the Melbourne-based newspaper The Age reported on a similar experiment in a public-sector school in the state of Victoria. From the beginning of this year Appin Park Primary School joined a small group of public primary schools that are experimenting with boys-only classes in order to see if they can improve educational results.

Public-sector secondary schools have long experienced boys-only classes, noted The Age. The move comes at a time of growing concern over lower performance of boys compared to girls in areas such as literacy and math.

School principal David Salau says that the response from the boys has been enthusiastic. The state education department says that it is a decision for schools, students and parents. “The schools’ aim in that situation is to provide a good learning environment for both the boys and girls,” said an official.

Scotland may be next in line to separating the sexes, the Scotsman newspaper reported Sept. 14. Government statistics show that 55.2% of girls under the age of 21 went into higher education in 2002-’03, compared to just 42.8% of boys. The figures reveal that over the past 15 years, young women have consistently surpassed men in enrolling in higher education. Faced with the latest data, Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell hinted at “experimentation with more single-sex classes.” Debates aren’t over, but for now single-sex education seems to earning a decent grade.

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