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Open Features: Single-Sex Education – The On-Going Dilema?

...There is no disputing that girls and boys learn in different ways and at different paces. Putting them all together within one environment surely leads to a levelling on all fronts? Can that be right?...

Mary Pilfold-Allan wonders whether we are not dumbing down our childrens’ education by officially insisting that boys and girls should be educated together.

‘Girls are far more likely to thrive’ in single-sex education than in co-educational according to recent research on behalf of the Good Schools Guide. Did it really require research to come to that conclusion?

Taking a look at the after shocks of this conclusion on the Web, whilst most appear to agree with the findings, there are some who have very different opinions. These range from putting across the male point of view, to others, mainly women, who paint all-girls schools as ‘bad for your mental health'.

Obviously there is no one answer and as education has been on a roller-coaster ride for the last half century, there isn’t likely to be a definitive solution either. If you are able to afford private education for your children then you can have whatever you pay for. If, like the majority of parents, you place your children under the state system, it is down to what is available near you – and even then you may not get your first or even second choice.

When my children were school age we had little option but to put the four of them through state education and in our area it was comprehensive. Watching my offspring journey through those years was in sharp contrast to my own single sex education. The notion of school uniform had a multitude of meanings. Discipline was better than it is today but still nothing like as good as in the 50s and 60s, and there certainly was more than an element of bullying.

Every morning it was difficult to use the bathroom between 7am and 8.30am when my children finally left for school. Appearance was paramount in a way that it never had been for my generation. We were not exactly St Trinians but certainly disciples of the soap and water brigade during the school day. After the bell went at four it was another matter. Out came the mascara and lipstick previously tucked away in our satchels and it was down to the bike sheds to don our war paint before the exciting half hour on the way home when we were waylaid by the boys, chatted up and made to feel special.

I watched my daughters worry about the length of their hems, wearing the right tights and whether they had enough foundation to cover the odd spot or two. With a strict uniform code, an even stricter no make-up policy and a sports mistress who believed in fresh air and plenty of it, we had no call to even think about glamour during our school day.

In class we never worried about making fools of ourselves by giving the wrong answers. Any sniggering was accepted for what it was, other girls getting their own back for times when they too had got it wrong. There was healthy competition to end up in the top three for the core subjects and prize-giving day was earnest and memorable. Our speech of thanks for the prize we hoped to receive was practiced with the help of the elocution mistress and our walk to the podium honed to perfection with the book on the head technique under the eagle eye of a deportment coach. If this all seems rather quaint, personally I have found these oddities have stood me in good stead over the years, especially for interviews and the grand entrance into a boardroom.

Did we learn better? That would be difficult to assess as our curriculum differed vastly from today’s. The school was principally turning out ‘young ladies’, most of which were destined to go down the path of marrying early. That did not mean we were not intelligent enough to have a career, but we were brought up on the expectation that we would have a family first and then get around to our own ambitions. Few bucked the trend and I am not arguing that this was right, just that it was the way things were.

In the last half century the world has changed out of all recognition, with different educational needs to meet the fast changing pace of life. Strangely enough, I have never felt disadvantaged by the education I received, quite the contrary. It taught me to behave like a woman whilst I strode through a man’s world. Do I hear a gasp at the last few words? Yes, the politically correct brigade is making inroads, some of which frankly make many of us flinch. There are still glass ceilings to crack but shattering them with feminine wile as well as ability gets you a lot further than riding rough-shod over people, the proverbial cracking a nut with a sledgehammer scenario.

There is no disputing that girls and boys learn in different ways and at different paces. Putting them all together within one environment surely leads to a levelling on all fronts? Can that be right? We talk about dumbing down in other contexts but are we not doing the same to our children’s education?

In conversation recently, one young man who is now at university after going through the co-ed system, commented that he had no intention of getting married. “Why would I want to do that? I had enough of girls and their hormones when I was at school. I like them as friends but live with them all day every day, no thanks.’

I raise this thought for consideration. Aside from the learning angle, have we not taken the mystery out of the sexes as they grow up. Is it the reason why so many form relationships, move in with each other and then casually move on again. Along with common learning, have we also created commonplace?


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