Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Dear Mr Cairns: On Single-Sex Education

Today I had the utmost pleasure of stumbling across this article: http://bit.ly/1O3SUmJ. I recommend you give it a read if you've not seen it already, and be prepared to be appalled...and then amused. After having spent 9 years in co-ed schools, followed by 6 years in a single-sex school, I feel fairly well positioned to be able to comment on both - and reassure Mr Cairns that I can just about manage to hold a conversation with a boy. So...

Dear Mr. Cairns,
I'd like to talk to you about single-sex education, and the "deeply unrealistic world" you seem to think that it embodies. After having spent my school years at a mix of co-ed and single-sex schools, I know exactly what both kinds of institutions are like, and I cannot say that I feel in any way "disadvantaged" from having attended a girls' school. I would not have changed my school experience for the world. 

My parents and I made the decision when I was in year eight that I should move schools. I wasn't happy at the school I was then attending, and I was ready for a change and a challenge. Our decision for me to go to a girls' school had very little to do with the fact that it was single-sex: it was simply an excellent local school, with good facilities, plentiful opportunities, an impressive academic reputation - and one which I had a really good feeling about when I visited. The transition to single-sex education was a surprising one, but definitely not unpleasant. The first thing I noticed was that the girls I was surrounded by were confident, happy and ambitious: they were not afraid to put their hands up in lessons, and they were self-assured in their opinions, eager to engage in debate. The second thing I noticed was that girls are generally much friendlier towards each other when boys aren't there: the rumours of 'bitchiness' I'd worried about were rendered inaccurate, because when there were no boys to argue over, or boys to clash with, there were significantly fewer squabbles. The final difference I noticed was that girls were empowered, more so than they had been in co-ed schools I'd attended. There was no sense that some activities, sports, subjects were for boys - but the promotion of the idea that girls can do anything. I was surrounded by girls who weren't discouraged by gender constructs - who were as happy to play cricket as they were netball, to study maths AND textiles, to aspire to be engineers, designers, politicians, lawyers, actresses and doctors. They were girls who were always told that they could do anything - that didn't feel pressured, by boys, into conforming to stereotypes. The ambition, the opportunities and the freedom prevalent in girls' schools is just one of the reasons why they consistently perform so well. 

I understand that one of your real concerns about single-sex education was that students would not be able to "meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues" and that this would obviously put them at a huge disadvantage. I agree, what an awful reality it would be only to be able to talk to other women. Thankfully, this is an outdated and archaic view and by no means a reality of students leaving single-sex schools. This assumes that girls at girls school solely communicate with girls, which is rarely the case. I, for example, have a brother - a real life male with whom I lived. I was part of drama groups outside of school, where I met boys; I regularly participated in public speaking and debating competitions, where I met boys; I already had friends, that were boys; and my friends had friends who I then met, who were boys. Just because a girl doesn't go to school with boys, it does not mean that they don't spend their evenings, their weekends, their school holidays, their hours on Facebook communicating with boys. Sometimes they even have boyfriends too. I suppose this reality of free time, outside of school, is something you and Brighton College pupils are largely unfamiliar with - thankfully I didn't have to spend 8 and a half hours a day at school, and most weekends, and every revision clinic going during the school holidays. This opinion also assumes that women who don't regularly spend time with men will suddenly perceive them to be some sort of alien species, with whom they couldn't possibly coerce. Fortunately most women don't experience any significant issue communicating professionally with men - girls' school or no girls' school. 

I also challenge the notion that students in co-ed environments experience greater kindness. I'd be interested to know on what basis this comment is founded, because my experience at a girls' schools revealed one of the closest, most supportive communities I've ever had the pleasure of being part of. I do not claim that co-ed schools do not produce these thoughtful communities, but there's something particularly exceptional about being surrounded by students who are going through the exact same things as you - and you can talk more openly about your problems, worries and pressure. But that's about camaraderie, not specifically kindness. Kindness is in schools all over the country, kindness is not gendered. 

There is one thing I do agree with you about however: that schools should provide "a place for everyone and environment where girls and boys can be themselves". Absolutely, and I wish every student in the country had been lucky enough to have experienced the same feeling of belonging that I felt at my school. But that place where a girl or a boy can be themselves is not necessarily a co-ed school, neither it is specifically a single-sex school. It is no secret that different schools suit different people, and wouldn't it be wonderful if all students had the opportunity to experiment with lots of different schools, co-ed or single-sex, to find the one that was right for them. There is nothing wrong with co-ed schools, but there's nothing wrong with single-sex schools either. 

Yours sincerely, 

Laura Warner

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4 comments

  1. This is so right! Brighton College Terms are shorter than Burgess Hills and each day is almost an hour shorter too! How can they possibly have free time!

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  2. Indeed, was that an attempt at irony, Random? Or evidence that the shorter days and terms are creating English language knowledge gaps?

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  3. No you're right I'm a girl at a mixed school taking engineering related subjects and therefore I don't take English, and it was sarcasm :)

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  4. This was a good post - though I definitely feel the opposite way! At my girls school I was discouraged from doing maths (as they only had two A-Level teachers), it was horrendously bitchy, and the five years I was there I hated. My sister is at a (lower performing) co-ed and has got on far, far better.

    However, my fiance went to the equivalent boys school (where I was one of 20 girls in the sixth form) and the singe sex BOYS school was a whole lot better. The sense of community there was insane, the support I received as a girl wanting to do maths was wonderful (and still is four years after leaving). Possibly it depends on the school, but I'm not sure I'd send my children to an all-girls school!

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