The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants helps parents find the best school for their child. This involves balancing concerns about academics, facilities, location and day or boarding. Increasingly, parents are anxious about the merits or otherwise of educating boys and girls separately. Recently, a parent who had requested a list of schools for her daughter, turned up, anxious and weepy, asking why we had recommended girls’ only schools as she didn’t want her daughter to be a lesbian. Although this was an exceptional reaction to the idea of single sex education, we do still get parents who worry that separating the sexes – particularly in a boarding school – is “unnatural” and may well hinder their offspring’s ability to relate easily with the opposite sex later on.
Loving parents, shuddering at memories of their own shuttered childhoods, cite the cliquiness and bitchery of girls en masse and claim that mixing the sexes during the formative years is healthier. Likewise, parents of shyer, more sensitive boys are wary of the heartiness of an all-male school and express real fear for their son who “really has no interest in football”.
Statistics support both sides of the argument. The Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) quotes learned studies to prove that girls achieve more highly without boys around and, in fact, the academic league tables are always top heavy with girls’ schools. Headmistresses smugly cite cases of girls who, misguidedly, leave them after GCSEs for co-ed sixth forms and slink back half way through the first term, wearied by being eyed up and talked down to and generally not treated as ‘equal’. Boys, on the other hand, thrive in coeducation.
Girls mature earlier, are self-motivated and generally concentrate better. They show the boys that it is cool to work and boys, in general, rise to the challenge. Seemingly, the top boys-only schools don’t need the girls for this. Their teaching is inspiring, the atmosphere stimulates intellectual exploration and achievement is sky-high. However, arguably our top London boys’ school – Westminster – has for more than forty years taken girls into its sixth form. The best of both worlds? Or just for the boys?
Do you detect a paradox here? Girls do better academically, feel under less social pressure, make life-long friendships in single sex schools. Boys, in general, do better in co-ed. But it is girls’ only schools which are feeling the pinch. Closed over the last few years are more than a dozen girls’ schools including West Heath, Princess Diana’s school, and hitherto treasured preserves of girldom such as Bedgebury, St Mary’s Hall and Felixstowe College.
So what’s a loving parent to do? In the end, there is only one answer. Look at the child you’ve got. Will he work and play hard whatever the distractions? In that case, go ahead and consider co-ed. Will she wilt if she has to compete for the boys’ attention? Or the masters’? Girls only for her then, perhaps. But is the single sex/co-ed question the most important one in his/her case? What about facilities? Results? Location? Mix of day to boarding pupils? Anyway, all decent single sex schools now collaborate on debating, drama, music and expeditions with their local opposites. And, funnily enough, the number of lesbians does not appear to have diminished with the demise of so many girls’ only schools.