One of the key considerations when choosing a school for your child is whether they should be educated in a single sex or co-ed environment. Some schools cater only for boys or girls; others are co-educational throughout or in just the sixth form. Which is more suitable often depends on your own preference, the character of the individual child and the age of entry. In this article we discuss some of the pros and cons of single sex vs co-ed schools along with our advice on how to find the right school for your child.
Pros and Cons of single sex and co-ed schools
The independent schools marketplace in the UK is diverse and offers parents the opportunity to have their son or daughter educated in a single sex or co-educational environment.
The number of single sex schools in the UK is dwindling. According to the Independent Schools Council, there are 92 single-sex private boys' schools in the UK and 139 independent girls' schools. These make up 17 per cent of all independent schools, down from 21 per cent ten years ago
The vast majority of schools today are co-educational and many traditionally single sex schools – Westminster, Charterhouse, Winchester – are going that way too. But all boys’ or all girls’ schools still have their passionate advocates – girls’ schools especially.
The debate about single sex schooling has had to shake off a kind of foundation myth of British culture, based on popular references like St Trinians’ and The History Boys, and the enduring legacy of famous institutions such as Eton and Harrow. But today it is less about entertaining the mythologies of famous boy’s schools and more about examining the practical, educational and social outcomes of your choice.
Your daughter might have a better chance of doing well at A Level maths, for example, at an all girls’ school. But what other cultural factors will come into play, and what about the impact on her sense of ‘self-concept’, or her future earning potential?
Choosing a single sex school environment for your child today is to face a more complex set of questions than in the past, not only because of the shifting sands of educational ‘best practise’ - but because our ideas about gender are changing too.
Different learning styles of boys and girls
Boys and girls might develop at different rates and have different interests and motivations – though this is complicated by the fact that individual boys and girls develop at different rates too. So your son or daughter may have a better chance of having their specific learning style catered to in a single sex environment.
For example, asking younger boys to sit still, be quiet and pay attention is often not always developmentally appropriate for them - and there are other ways to teach reading to boys that doesn’t require them to sit still. “In some of the most effective boys’ classrooms for 5-year-old boys, one boy is standing and making buzzing noises, while another is lying on the floor, and another is twirling,” says expert Leonard Sax from MIT. “But all of them are learning to read.”
Coeducation advocates agree that there are some subtle differences between the male and female brain. But they also suggest there’s a lack of research to support the idea that these differences matter to learning on an individual level.
Lisa Damour, PhD, who has worked extensively on research into all girls’ schooling, suggests that, “We really shouldn’t be developing curricula or approaches to teaching that don’t account for the fact that a lot of girls in a girls’ school are going to think and act like boys and the other way around.”
Do girls do better at all girls schools?
Those in favour of all-girls schooling talk about the benefits of a more caring, less boisterous environment. This in turn leads to girls being more likely to choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects when compared to girls at co-ed schools. Data supports this claim. A 2021 analysis by the Girls’ Schools Association of research by the UK Department of Education suggests that students at girls’ schools were twice as likely as their co-ed peers to study Maths at A Level – and 2.5 times when it came to Further Maths and Physics. And they were more likely to study other STEM subjects at A Level.
This may be to do with what experts call ‘self concept’, part of which may be to do with mental resilience. Girls’ schools reduce the impact of stereotyped, gender-based expectations. There is no such thing as a ‘girl’s subject’ or a ‘boy’s subject’ and they are free to follow their instincts and interests without any of the pressure they might feel in a coeducational environment.
An AQR International research paper looked into this and found that students from all girls’ schools showed ‘higher mental toughness scores…particularly for emotional control and confidence’. A breadth of other studies have suggested further advantages, from girls being more likely to participate in school sports and fitness classes – to earning more during the course of their working lives.
Do boys do better at all boys schools?
All boys’ schooling doesn’t seem to engender the same passionate advocacy as girls’ schools. Yet some of the highest performing and best respected schools in the UK teach only boys.
Again, there is a data-driven academic aspect to school performance and reputation, but in parallel one might consider less tangible things, like culture and heritage: that King Charles III went to Gordonstoun, Churchill to Harrow and Boris Johnson to Eton.
Advocates of boy’s schooling maintain that boys have a gender-specific learning style that is best catered to by teachers who devise lessons with boys uniquely in mind. Simply, single-sex schools are better placed to create a dynamic based on having only one sex in the classroom at a time, building opportunities that don’t exist in the co-ed classroom. Education practitioners can therefore use strategies that don’t work as well — or at all — in the co-ed classroom.
Advocates also suggest that it is also to do with male role models, and that it is still possible to cater to a more specific range of interests - though the idea that there are separate ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ interests is perhaps a somewhat outmoded idea today.
There is also the ambiguous data, some of which suggests boys do better in single sex schools and some – such as the School Dash analysis of GCSE performance data – which shows that boys in co-ed schools perform equally well.
A 2016 study also found that boys aged 15 performed better at reading when sharing classes with girls. This tallies with the widely accepted idea that the presence of girls helps boys do better at school.
Which school is right for my child?
Experts on single sex schooling suggest that their success often depends on the creation of a demanding curriculum and sharp focus on extracurricular elements – though these are arguably essential facets in any education at any good school, whether single sex or co-educational.
Parents must consider whether the school is right for their individual child – or children. As well as considering your child’s character it’s right to consider logistical elements such as whether you it works to have your children attending different schools. Some families with only boys might choose co-education so that their sons learn to work with girls.
But finally the argument really boils down to whether the school is good or not, whether it provides strong pastoral care and inspiring teaching, and whether it is well run.
School advisory services
Keystone provides educational advice to families who wish to send their children to independent schools in the UK. With an outstanding reputation for providing dependable, impartial guidance, we have a comprehensive knowledge of the British private school system. Keystone’s advisory team are experienced in providing school-specific support in preparation for school selection and entry from nursery up to 16+. Whether you are looking for a long-term educational strategy, or circumstances have changed and you require an ‘occasional place’, our advisors are always happy to set up a call to discuss how we might be able to help.