Co-ed or Single-Sex Schools: Which Is Better for My Child?


  1. The history of gender and education in the UK
  2. How many schools in the UK are single-sex?
  3. Are single-sex schools more effective than co-ed?
  4. Gender identity and single-sex schools

Are single-sex schools old-fashioned institutions that uphold damaging gender stereotypes and lead to unhealthy adult relationships? Or do they remove limiting gender expectations for children and ensure all-around academic success? Let's take a look at the ongoing debate and corresponding research so far. 👇kids in uniform on computers

The history of gender and education in the UK


For many, the UK has a long and distinguished association with academic excellence. With many of its oldest and most renowned educational establishments – including Eaton, Oxford and Cambridge – still standing today and boarding schools that attract students from all over the world. 🌍

The nation’s rigorous approach to education dates right back to the middle ages. Founded in the year 597, King’s School in Canterbury – a cloistered religious institution where male students devoted themselves to prayer and learning Latin grammar – and others like it, gave rise to the now widely-used term “grammar school”. 

It wasn’t until the 17th century – some 1,000 years after the earliest schools existed in the UK – female students were slowly granted access to education with the first boarding schools for girls offering limited curriculums of writing, music, and needlework being founded in towns. 👩

Now, as recently as 2017, a study by Utrecht University found that in schools with more than 60 percent girls, boys had better reading scores – concluding that boys seemed to be ‘positively affected’ by a high proportion of female students in a school with girls setting a ‘more successful learning climate’ that the boys seemed to benefit from.

So, while some say that single-sex education in the UK is a product of unchallenged patriarchal standards and longstanding sexual inequality, others – particularly modern-day supporters of all-girl schools – see all-female education as a progressive social force that once sought to correct the disparity and now resolutely champions women’s academic abilities without pandering to the idea that their presence makes education better for the boys around them. 💅 


How many schools in the UK are single-sex?


While England has a very strong tradition of single-sex education, Scottish education was largely mixed, and Wales introduced dual schools – a girls' side and a boys' side under one roof – in 1889. In England, most secondary education was single-sex until the 1970s. 🙅

According to Sheila Cooper, Executive Director, Girls’ Schools Association the majority of single-sex schools are found in the independent fee-paying sector, but around 12 percent of government-funded schools remain single-sex, with 226 girls’ schools and 184 boys’ schools out of a total of 3,400 secondary schools.

In the last few years, increasing numbers of traditionally single-sex schools have also been opting for a co-ed approach, particularly all-boys schools. Today, the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) has 298 member schools – just 48 are boys only. In contrast, the Girls’ School Association (GSA) has 142 members. 🚸


Are single-sex schools more effective than co-ed?


Strongly held opinions on both sides of the argument point to certain beliefs and rely heavily on limited studies or indicators to support their position. 🧑‍⚖️

Those in support of single-sex education maintain that boys' and girls' brains are fundamentally different – with boys developing their visual-spatial areas early while girls' brains excel at language-related development and overall school readiness. But, for every study supporting this claim, there is another to suggest that there is a multitude of different learning styles seemingly unaffected by gender at all.  

Another reason some people opt for single-sex education is the belief that they are limiting distractions for their children. Although this may be true in some instances, its wholesale negates the experience of any child that isn’t heterosexual whilst ignoring any research that suggests single-sex education can actually lead to unhealthy attitudes towards gender and social roles later in life. 🤷

The last but perhaps most compelling claim is that single-sex schools attain better exam results and if the league tables are anything to go by, that is a fair claim to make. There is no guarantee however that this trend is due to gender isolation rather than the smaller class size, superior facilities and inherent self-selection that goes hand-in-hand with fee-paying schools. 

In truth, the most definitive survey of the effect of single-sex and co-education on academic attainment – the Smithers report – found it to be nonexistent. Instead, the study suggested that the impact of factors such as teaching methodology, school management and peer group culture consistently outweigh that of gender separation on academic achievement. 🧐


Gender identity and single-sex schools          


The overall debate around co-ed versus single-sex schooling is undeniably fraught with a reductive, stereotypical and often exclusionary understanding of sex, gender identity and sexuality. 

The very notion of single-sex education relies upon the premise that sex and gender are both binary concepts. This simply does not align with a modern society where Facebook has 58 gender types to choose from and the numbers of young people identifying as transgender and non-binary are increasing. 🏳️‍⚧️

Although single-sex schools are attempting to update their entrance requirements – often on a case-by-case basis – to accommodate transgender children, they are left in a difficult position in terms of facilities, school uniforms and previously unproblematic gendered language. Although these attempts are admirable, they are in no way accommodating of any child inclined towards a fluid or neutral approach to gender

Ultimately, the decision around which school to send your child to will depend on their individual character and needs as well as your own preferences. No matter what school you decide on, our GoStudent tutors can support your child to achieve their academic goals. Book a free trial lesson today and see how affordable one-to-one online tuition could work for your family. 🎒

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