As a product myself of single-sex school – who for many years had something of a stammer around the opposite sex – I was determined things would be different for my son. As well as drawing on my own experience, I had witnessed the devastatingly poor social skills of too many boarding school boys-turned-men who had never really talked to girls, besides their mother or sister, until the age of 18. I had read that the divorce rate is 40 per cent higher in men who have attended single-sex school. There seemed no end to the potential damage caused by too many boys being cloistered together, Lord of the Flies-style.
My son Milo would not fall into this trap. He would not rejoice in fart and willy jokes and talk of nothing but football league tables, cars and Xbox. He would know how to express his emotions and answer to his Christian name, not some ridiculous mutation of his surname conjured up by a socially inept gang of Horrid Henrys lacking the softening effect of females in their midst. He would develop a passion for painting and take up a musical instrument, without the fraternity berating him for being a ‘sissy’. And so it was that he was sent, aged 4, to a happy, hectic mixed school close to our home.
How I loved watching my boy trot into school and take his seat next to girls with names like Bella and Alice, their hair in plaits, their desks neat and tidy.
And now three years on, Milo is still at this co-ed school. He is still sitting next to girls, and even occasionally speaking to them – provided there are no boys readily available to discuss Match Attax with. He is, in truth, blissfully happy. But he knows no different, and as thoughts turn to the next stage, I can’t help but wonder what the benefit of having girls around him has been, and what he might have gained without them?
Is there any real harm in acting like a bit of a thug in the playground? Perhaps he would feel more confident in his lessons without the girls shooting their hands up to answer every question. In three years he has had all of three play-dates with girls – most of these forced upon him by me, and resulting in the female in question looking traumatised after having a football blasted their heads for two hours straight. “She likes it,” he protested once, bewildered, as I dragged him, clutching his football, from the house of a shaking girl.
On a recent tour of all-boys’ prep school Cothill House, I had a light-bulb moment while in the history classroom. The boys were not sitting still. They were not even being told to sit still. Rather, they bounced around the room, alongside their teacher, looking electrified, while poring over miniature constructs they had made with papier-mâché of First World War battlefields.
This was an inspirational display of boys being boys. “That ‘sit still and listen’ approach just doesn’t work with boys,” shrugged the teacher. “Boys like to do things, to be engaged; they learn visually.”
Author Michael Gurian agrees, arguing in his book Boys & Girls Learn Differently that “boys learn better when they can channel their energy and learn in a playful way.”
The idea that men are from Mars and women from Venus appears to apply as much to learning as to love, and it starts from an early age. Studies have even shown that boys perform better in cooler classrooms, while girls do in warmer ones. David Levin, the outgoing head of the City of London School (for boys) and a Downing Street adviser, says: “We urge our teachers to vary what happens in class as much as possible and to ensure boys are not just cocooned with a book. We want to enable them to get up and walk around because the concentration levels of adolescent boys are not long. They need variety: a mix of reading from books, competitive teamwork and getting up and moving between exercises.
Levin is a staunch proponent of all-boys schooling. He attributes the widening gap between the academic results of girls and boys to the decline in all-boys secondary schools, in both the state and independent sectors; these now represent just five per cent of schools listed in the Good Schools Guide.
A nonsensical statistic really, when this five per cent, in turn, accounts for a large proportion of the schools topping the charts: Eton, Winchester, St Paul’s, Westminster. Say no more.
We don’t really hear of co-eds in the same breath, academically, as the single-sex league table titans, and perhaps this is because of the very tailored approach single-sex schools can take to pupils’ needs, biologically determined by their sex.
But the argument is equally passionate for the other side: just because we are different does not mean we should be kept separate, insist many. “Mixed schools are definitely more fashionable now,” says one London nursery school headmistress, who is seeing an increase in the number of parents seeking co-ed options at age 4, turning their backs on the traditional single-sex institutions, despite their stronger academic reputations. There has, she says, been a bit of a backlash against the ‘tiger parent’ mentality of seeing a child as just ‘a set of exam results’. Mixed school is more in keeping with looking at the child as ‘a whole person’.
Anthony Seldon, the recently knighted retiring headmaster of mixed secondary Wellington College, has been vociferous on the point, arguing that it is precisely the differences between boys and girls that make them so useful to each other in the classroom. “In English lessons, it is invaluable to have both male and female perspectives on texts… They learn to understand and respect different views and opinions.” He adds that “good teachers will draw out girls and moderate boys” and describes the single-sex system as “a lopsided and artificial environment”.
Magoo Giles, himself a product of 13 years of all-boys education and formerly headmaster of an all-boys prep school, takes this view as well, and has, accordingly, set up the Knightsbridge School for boys and girls from 4-13. “Life outside education is mixed, and boys and girls who learn and play together from an early age are natural and comfortable with each other – a really important skill later in life, both in work and socially.” He adds that his own son attends his school, where he “plays tennis, football and table tennis with three girls… and has no problem with it now.”
Clearly, no two boys are the same, and external factors – like whether or not he has a sister at home – weigh in too. What works for one boy might not for another. A boy who isn’t massively sporty might be happier at a mixed school with girls there to show that ‘less masculine pursuits’ have worth too. A boy I know who lost his father was sent to to an all-boys school specifically so that he could get the male influence at school that he didn’t have at home; it was the right decision.
In the final analysis, though, a school needs to be judged on all of its merits, not just whether or not it mixes the sexes. Anthony Seldon admits: “I would sooner a child attended an excellent single-sex school than a bad co-ed one.”
My own head is still in a muddle. For, while I cannot get that image of those excited boys dancing around their papier-mâché battlefields out of my head, nor can I banish the idea – possibly a fantasy – of Milo coming home one day and announcing that a girl is his best friend. Or, maybe, at the very least agreeing to play table tennis with her, although that way danger lies. A friend of mine recently moved her five year old son from his mixed school after he fell so in love with a little girl in his class that he became inconsolable when she told him (just before a spelling test) that she was “dumping” him and “marrying” someone called Luca instead. He couldn’t speak, let alone read, for days. As we all know, there is plenty of time in later life for all that…
Charlotte Pearson Methven is a features writer and a regular contributor to the Daily Mail. She has two children – a girl aged 9 and a boy aged 7. Her perfect winter Sunday is a long lunch with red wine and children running wild, then a hot bath and an early night.
Have you chosen a co-ed of single-sex school? Do you agree with Charlotte’s views? Have you moved a child from one to other, or regretted your decision?