Do Girls Perform Better Without Boys?

By School House

7 years ago

Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College, puts up a spirited case for co-education

Brighton College head Richard Cairns to join in the single-sex versus co-ed debate, arguing that bright girls will study the sciences regardless of the presence of boys.

single-sex or co-ed

I believe that all schools essentially want the same thing for their pupils. To prepare them for the world beyond their school, both academically and pastorally, and to help them develop into mature, thoughtful, helpful individuals who are socially capable.

But how can we do this if we segregate girls and boys into single-sex environments that bear no resemblance to the real world? The skills of engaging with the opposite sex – learning and appreciating their differences – come naturally as children mature. But if they are not in an environment where this can happen organically, is it any wonder that we end up with a situation where Oxford rugby teams have to attend anti-sexism classes and the National Union of Students says that lad culture is rife in universities?

Girls schools vs single-sex schools

It is all very well for students to emerge from the cocoon of single-sex education with a clutch of A*s. But every adult in the workplace will tell you that, if you don’t feel completely comfortable and at ease dealing with a member of the opposite sex, then life is going to be a struggle.

But don’t just take my word for it. The US journal Science published research suggesting women who study at single-sex colleges were ‘compromised in the workplace as their ability to network and cooperate with men was inhibited’.

The same research also tackles the lazy misconception that somehow girls get better grades when they are not in contact with boys. It says this argument relies on ‘weak, cherry-picked scientific claims’ and argues that, conversely, there is proof that the separation of the sexes makes gender stereotyping more likely and reinforces sexism.

I think I am well placed to argue this case, having taught at both single-sex and co-ed schools. I have seen at close quarters how having boys and girls sat side by side in the classroom benefits both as they learn from each other.

Gender stereotypes

So often it is argued that girls do better academically (especially in typically ‘male’ subjects) but research over many decades actually suggests this is not the case. The reason some all-girls’ schools have fared so well in these ‘male’ subjects is that the schools are particularly selective. The reality is that clever girls are more likely to study physics than their friends of more average ability. It matters not one bit if they are sharing a class with boys or not.

I need look no further than the results of my own pupils here at Brighton College. Some 93.7 per cent of girls at Brighton College got A*–B in last summer’s A-level results – which lands us in fourth place in the Sunday Times top 20 girls’ schools in the country.

Fortunately, the outdated concept of girls faring better amongst themselves is losing traction. In the independent sector just ten per cent of boys and 16 per cent of girls now learn in single-sex schools and that number is gradually falling. There are now a third fewer girls’ schools and half as many boys’ schools as there were 20 years ago – a trend surely set to continue.

READ MORE: Why we Need More Women in StemBoarding School: Country or Town?/ City Schools: The Urban Advantage in Education