Back To School: Girls Perform Better In Single-Sex School Environments. Why Don’t Boys?

Single-sex education has proven to be beneficial to girls for sometime now. From kindergarten through college, girls do well when learning in classrooms with just other female students. Yet when boys are placed in single-sex environments, they don’t exhibit the same results.

Female students in single-sex institutions test better than girls in co-ed classrooms, and continue to thrive well into their scholastic careers. Even girls who have previously struggled in co-ed schools environments can significantly catch up once being placed in a single sex classroom. Later down the road, regardless of a previous co-ed education, young women who are educated in women’s colleges are more likely to attend graduate school that those who attend co-ed universities or colleges.

Aside from testing better, girls who attend single sex-insuitons are also more likely to try a variety of subjects regardless of what is conventionally considered a girls’ subject or a boys’ subject. Sue Dunford, headteacher of Southfield School for Girls in Kettering, observed to The Guardian that girls excel without boys in the classroom because they present a looming distraction when it comes to academics:

“It’s a question of confidence in the way girls develop. It’s cool to be very good at anything in a girls school – maths, sciences or physics. No one will ask why you’re doing a boys’ subject. Girls who lack confidence can thrive more in girls-only schools. We don’t have boys competing and distracting, so girls can really go for it.”

Girls are encouraged to study and excel in a multitude of subjects without the scrutiny of appearing like a “tomboy” for doing well in math or sciences. Jill Berry, president of the Girls’ School Association, echoed the same observation to The Times, saying:

“Girls are less self-conscious in single-sex schools. They are certainly more confident and are much more likely to speak up for themselves and to volunteer to do things like sing a solo because they are less worried about what others, particularly boys, think of them.”

Gender bias in the classroom has been observed as a factor in girls scholastically doing better in single-sex learning environments. Although unconscious, teachers tend to call on male students more often and enforce gendered stereotypes regarding what subjects boys and girls perform well in. Such efforts by teachers, although not executed out of intention, can funnel boys and girls into specific subjects or tracks that don’t necessarily reflect all of the child’s strengths as students.

Janette Wallis, a researcher on a single-sex education study, told The Times that parents often dismiss the idea of educating their daughters in single-sex environments because it does not reflect the “real world.” She advised:

“But what this research shows is that many girls benefit enormously academically from a girls-only school,” she said. “It’s important that parents consider this when weighing up the pros and cons of co-ed versus girls-only schooling. Parents are fooling themselves if they dismiss this.”

Yet, despite girls flourishing when working along aside their female peers, boys don’t mirror the same results. Although the research is not as solid as it is for the performance of girls, early studies have garnered some comments. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, told The Independent in 2009:

“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.”

Although all-girls classrooms have been noted to obliterate gender stereotyping, some observe the exact opposite result in all-boy environments. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women raised an excellent point to The New York Times when commenting on boys learning on their own:

“A boy who has never been beaten by a girl on an algebra test could have some major problems having a female supervisor,” she said.

The fact that single-sex learning may not work both ways raises even more questions for parents looking to ensure that their kids receive the adequate scholastic attention and encouragement regardless of gender. Boys and girls may absolutely learn and process material differently, but to ensure a suitable learning environment for both sexes, more study is needed on these gender differences.

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  • Janet

    I went to a single-sex school and it was really good for me. I was very lucky to be surrounded by smart and down to earth girls, I know that my husband thinks differently because he didn’t experience single-sex education, but I would choose that over co-ed without a doubt.

  • Triplezmom

    I’m going to sound terribly sexist and horrible here, but. . .As a former elementary school teacher, I can tell you that boys in general are higher maintenance that girls in general are. So in an all girl class, the teacher can focus on teaching the material and helping the less able students. In an all boy class, the teacher is going to be dealing with having to redirect boy energy and attention periodically, having to keep more able students entertained (able girls usually keep themselves entertained) as well as teaching the material and helping the less able students. So I think it has less to do with girls’ growing confidence and more to do with teachers being able to be more effective.

    • Emily

      Interesting perspective! I taught in an all-boys’ school for a few years, and came away thinking that I would definitely send a son to a single-sex school, but would hesitate to send a daughter (we had nearby “sister schools”). The girls are just SO MEAN to one another! (At least, at the HS level, which is what I was familiar with.) The boys were just so much more straightforward. And, we could read “Romeo and Juliet” with a 6-foot-four Juliet!

      I also saw that the boys – especially the younger ones – were absolutely cowed by girls who exuded a lot of self-confidence (which usually came in the form of skimpy clothes at dances). They just develop (socially, emotionally, physically) at such different rates!

  • LN

    A substantial portion of the outcome of single-sex education is self-selection.

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