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Single-sex is best (sometimes)

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2006

“Should I put my child in a single-sex or coeducational school?” Every few weeks I get asked this question. Here is a recent example:

Dear Dr West

I am the mother of three boys. I am worried about my youngest son, who is bored at school. We have a couple of choices: a boys’ only school, or a co-educational school.


I feel a co-ed school would help him socialise with girls. There are no females in the family (apart from myself and the very dead goldfish!). On the other hand, a boys-only school might be better academically. I want what is educationally best for him - academically and socially. I am writing to ask whether research has shown one form of schooling to be better than the other for boys. And are young boys better off in single sex schools?

This letter was emailed to me recently, though identifying names have been removed. It is typical of many enquiries. What this mother wants to know is the balance of the equation. There may be academic advantages in putting her son in a single-sex school. But she knows there are social advantages to be gained from spending his day with girls.

This mother has a good understanding of the literature, which states that there CAN be advantages in educating boys in a same-sex environment. As girls volunteer more, and speak up more often, boys will often let girls lead a discussion. I see this happen very often in university tutorials. Boys watch how the arguments go, then wade in with an attempt to sum up. They would learn more if girls were not there doing all the useful work which got the discussion going.

On the other hand, it is argued that girls settle down to work more effectively if there are no boys present. Some girls may hold back because they feel they do not wish to show up the boys. Each sex can at times spend too much time seeking attention from the other by means of comments, sending messages on pieces of paper, “accidentally” falling over towards another and so on.

An important consideration is that girls are more verbally fluent than boys. If lessons are aimed at reading, listening and certain kinds of writing, then girls will do better than boys.

Research by Ken Rowe at the Australian Council for Educational Research says that this is indeed true. This shift in schools towards more verbal assessment favours girls (as well as the small percentage of verbally-fluent boys). Boys can offer unusual ideas which may seem off the wall to middle-class, middle aged teachers. But these ideas can jolt the room into thinking in new and useful ways. Sometimes we have to remind teachers to tolerate boys’ wacky ideas and boisterous behaviour.


Writing offers a sharp contrast between males and females as I explain in workshops that I do. Girls are good at descriptive and explanatory tasks. They will happily sit down and write about their best friend, or detail what they saw on an excursion. Boys find such tasks tiresome.

Remember, too, that boys are wary about seeming too friendly with another boy, for fear of being labelled gay, and ridiculed. But boys will happily write about topics like “The world in the year 3000”, “How to fix a puncture” or “How I saved our town from terrorists”. Speculative writing and mechanical detail appeals to many boys. Don’t ever forget that boys enjoy doing tasks that strengthen their sense of strong masculinity.

In the playground, boys and girls again offer a marked contrast. Girls usually sit around, talk with friends or merely enjoy each others’ company. Boys would more commonly spend time rushing around, playing competitive sport, or making a great noise. Girls can be annoyed by boys who tease or shove them for various reasons. I have observed playgrounds in places as far apart as Edinburgh and Rio and this is what I see.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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