Are Single-Sex Schools Bad For Boys?

A new study suggests single-sex schooling makes boys more likely to divorce — and even suffer "malaise" — when they grow up. But is single-sex schooling bad for girls as well?

According to the study, no. British researchers looked at 17,000 adults, all born in the same week in 1958. Men who had attended single-sex schools as children were more likely to divorce or separate from a partner by their early 40s than those who went to coed institutions. And men educated in single-sex environments were more likely to suffer depression or "a sense of malaise." Girls, however, did not appear to feel these adverse effects. Mary Bousted of the UK's Association of Teachers and Lecturers responded thus:

All the research shows single-sex schools are good for girls but bad for boys – both in terms of academic performance and socialisation. Girls seem to learn what the nature of the beast is if they have been to single sex schools whereas boys taught on their own seem to find girls more puzzling. Boys learn better when they are with girls and they actually learn to get on better.

As Bousted's "nature of the beast" comment shows, it's easy to inject anecdotal evidence into the single-sex schooling debate, and such evidence can easily turn to gender stereotype. For my part, boys I've known who had close female friends growing up — in school or out — tend to be more feminist and generally more comfortable around women. But it's hard to assign causality here — boys who are naturally well-disposed towards girls probably tend to have more of them as friends. And while I can certainly buy that being socialized with girls from an early age helps boys with relationships later in life, I'm not sure that girls are naturally "puzzling" while boys are easy to figure out. I wonder if the kind of school students attended affected the results — some were educated privately, some publicly, and it's not clear if researchers controlled for this. I also wonder if girls reap benefits from co-ed schooling that were outside the scope of the study. Lucy Hodges, editor of the Independent's education supplement, thinks they do. She writes,

As someone who was educated in a single-sex boarding school I believe my schooling might have been improved if I had spent it in the company of boys as well as girls. It would certainly have provided some welcome distraction in lessons. Instead of reading Georgette Heyer all the way through Latin and maths, I could have been making eyes at a real-life hero a few yards away and even had some improving discussions with him about my algebra prep. As it was, I didn't really get to know a youth who wasn't in a book until I arrived at university at the tender age of 17-and-a-half.

The relationship-building implications of single-sex schooling for heterosexual girls aren't totally trivial, but it's kind of unfortunate that Hodges chooses to frame them in terms of their dubious educational benefit. She also says that her daughter "would have been better off, certainly at sixth-form, at a school with some boys – and a few more male teachers – to bring a bit of spice and interest to her life." The idea that girls need sexual excitement to perform well in school is kind of depressing — can't academic subjects add "spice and interest" to life?

I'm not convinced that the excitement of the opposite sex helps hetero kids learn math. But it does seem logical that, regardless of sexual orientation, children learn social lessons from opposite sex peers. Potential confounding variables aside, it is possible that boys learn more valuable lessons than girls, or at least different ones. They may learn that girls share their interests and goals, that they can be smart and funny and fast and cool, and — most importantly — that they are people worthy of attention and consideration. Girls probably learn the same things about boys, but they may also learn that some boys don't like it when they speak up, or that some teachers have different expectations of them because of their gender. These lessons may be damaging to girls, and single-sex education may shield them from this damage for a time. But if it's true that sex segregation hampers boys' ability to relate to girls and later to women, that's not good for either gender. Single-sex education has benefits for many people, but it's not a gender-relations panacea — if we want boys and girls to grow up free of prejudice, we may ultimately need to pay more attention to what we're teaching them than to whether we're teaching them together.

Why Single-Sex Schools Are Bad For Your Health (If You're A Boy) [Independent]
Lucy Hodges: The Perils Of Single-Sex Education [Independent]