The legal wrangle in the courts over whether segregating boys and girls in a mixed-sex Muslim school in Birmingham breaks the law under the Equality Act 2010 has brought questions about the merits of single-sex education back to the fore. However, stepping back from the specifics of this case, is it time to entirely rethink the existence of gender segregation in state-funded education?
Proponents of single-sex education point to stark gender divides in subject choices. In 2016, 76% of psychology and 73% of English A-level entries came from girls. On the flip side, more than nine in 10 young people taking computing A-level are boys.
But more single-sex education is not the solution. Inequalities in A-level uptake do not completely disappear in single-sex schools. And separating boys and girls does nothing to tackle the underlying structural inequality in society. I’m a case in point. I left school with A-levels in both English and psychology, two subjects that feature near the top of the league table showing the difference in A-level grades between female and male students – despite attending an all-girls school between the age of 11 and 18.
Although I did well in maths and science, I dropped them at the first opportunity. Perhaps my early boy-free environment allowed me to develop a positive belief in my academic ability in “masculine” subjects. But at what cost are we willing to accept these gains – and what message are we sending to our girls when we tell them that they can only flourish in a boy-free bubble?
It is certainly the case that I benefited from some aspects of an all girls’ education. I never suffered from the sense that some subjects were the preserve of boys, or that being female would hold me back in any way. But on the other hand, the non-core subjects we were offered were highly geared towards traditional femininity: home economics and textiles were compulsory, whereas politics and economics were not available, as they were in the local all-boys school. Since then I have often, tongue in cheek, tried to use these gendered subject options as an excuse for my failure to join the conveyor belt to power by getting into politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford.
Regardless of my own experience, as Laura McInerney has argued, we should also reflect on why we pathologise girls for not taking Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects but seem unconcerned that few boys study English or childcare. Moreover, the gender gap in attainment has hardly shrunk in the last nine years. Last year, 73% of GCSE entries by females were graded A* to C, compared to only 64% of entries by male pupils, the largest gender gap since 2002.
Against this backdrop, sexual harassment in our schools continues to go unchallenged. If we have to separate boys and girls to ensure they fulfil their potential, we fail to address the issues that lie behind these trends. We also forget that most pupils will continue to be educated in mixed schools, and that all pupils will leave school and transition to a mixed world.
One of the strongest determinants of young people’s belief in gender stereotypes is the attitude of their parents. Segregated schools do not address this. Parents’ evenings frequently included parents making comments like: “She’s not one for maths – that’s girls for you.” Or “you know what boys are like, they can’t sit still long enough to write”. While none of these parents wanted to hinder their child’s success, gender biases are so deeply entrenched in our worldview that it’s difficult to avoid them. Rather than fighting a losing battle to insulate pupils from these attitudes, schools should instead actively challenge them. The organisation Fearless Futures, for instance, runs equality and leadership development programmes with girls to develop understanding of gender and inequality by engaging critically with normalised messages that shape men and women’s experiences.
Even now, there are some who argue that single-sex schooling is a practical response to girls’ preference for “learning more collaboratively”, or boys’ brains being “wired differently”. Claims that there are meaningful differences between “boys brains” and “girls brains” can lead to teachers treating them differently or altering their expectations.
This not only not only reinforces damaging gender stereotypes but is a disaster for students that don’t conform to stereotypical expectations and leads to both boys and girls missing out on potentially beneficial learning experiences. There is little evidence to suggest that gender differences have an important effect on academic ability or learning preferences. Indeed, any discernible gender difference is tiny in comparison to the wide variation within groups of boys and groups of girls.
More fundamentally, when we ask ourselves “what is the purpose of education?”, most of us will at least mention the importance of preparing young people for the world beyond school. This world is male, female, and indeed myriad other dimensions of gender, sexuality and intersections thereof. As Luke Tryl, director of strategy at Ofsted recently argued, schools are one of the last few unifying structures in society. We should think twice before compromising that universalism in the name of insulating pupils from the stereotypes that they will inevitably have to confront in the future.