Some people think that educating boys and girls separately boosts academic success. Others feel that single-sex schools have no place in the modern world. And one nursery school is trying hard to eliminate all gender stereotyping within a co-ed environment.
Single Sex High School, Australia
Single-sex state schools are increasingly rare in the world today. But 12 percent of secondary schools in Sydney, Australia, are single sex. The idea is that boys and girls achieve better academic results when they are educated separately.
One such school is Epping Boys High, where student Adam said: “It definitely caters to my needs, I am engaged in a lot of programmes such as drama, music and sport and really I don’t know any better school. I don’t think there is one that caters to the male needs.”
Women are not banned from the school – in fact most of the teachers are female.
Head Teacher Peter Garrard said: “Girls often mature earlier than boys, emotionally and also academically. So, if there is always that competition between girls and boys then boys can feel they are inferior and so it’s good for boys’ self esteem not to have that competition.”
Some studies show that boys tend to choose subjects traditionally considered to be “male” (like sport or science) when they are in a mixed-sex environment. In a single-sex school the theory is that they feel more free to do arts and humanities.
In 2010 the school implemented a programme called ‘Boys to Men’, aiming at preparing them to leave school and enter a mixed-sex world.
Adam explained: “We learn about stuff like sexual harassment and treatment of women in the workplace and in particular some bad choices people have made. The Boys to Men programme is a lot about choices we make as men, so yeah, there are a lot of things about women in Boys to Men.”
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The World is Not Single Sex
For more insight Learning World interviewed Lise Eliot, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Chicago Medical School.
Learning World: “Are there differences between male and female brains? And do both sexes learn differently?”
Lise Eliot, Professor of Neuroscience, Chicago Medical School: “There’s simply no basis for separating boys and girls based on brain differences. And I also dispute the idea that boys and girls learn differently. For all the psychological testing of how children learn to read or learn to do math, the brain circuits that both boys and girls are using are the same. Yes, we know that girls read better. What determines whether boys read as well as girls is simply how much time they spend reading. Same thing for the math. So there really is no neuro or psychological reason for separating boys and girls in education. I think boys and girls have been separated for historical and cultural reasons. Parents are more comfortable having boys and girls in separated classrooms because of sexual attraction, they believe boys and girls distract each other.”
Learning World: “If there’s a lack of scientific evidence, why is there so much favourable information out there about single sex schools?”
Professor Lise Eliot: “The reason people think single-sex schools are outstanding is because there are many outstanding single-sex schools in existence. But this is a historical leftover from the fact that, in the old days, if a girl wanted to go to a great school she didn’t have the option of going to a ‘co-ed’ school. These wonderful boys’ and girls’ academies whose students are already quite intelligent, who come from very privileged families, the schools themselves are heavily resourced, they have a lot of money and excellent teachers and so the graduates of these schools do quite well – and that leads to the impression that something about the single-sex nature of those schools was beneficial.”
Learning World: “What are the disadvantages of single sex schools?”
Professor Lise Eliot: “The problem with single-sex schools is it creates, we believe, an artificial environment. The world is not single-sex. We need to learn to interact with all kinds of other people: people from different countries, people from different religions, and people of the other gender. The data shows it makes no difference and we believe it’s even somehow harmful to separate boys and girls, that they lose the opportunity to learn from each other, that boys lose the verbal enrichment of girls, girls lose the spacial and physical enrichment of boys. Because of the fact they are running countries and running families and running corporations together they need to learn those skills for interaction throughout their development.”
Just Friends, Sweden
At Stockholm’s Nikolaigården nursery school, children are encouraged to think of themselves as people first, boys or girls second.
Lotta Rajalin, the head-teacher at the school, explained: “My colleagues and I developed our methods of working with equality and democracy in order to give the children a whole life experience. They should have every opportunity to try new activities, experience emotions, take every opportunity, try everything they want, follow every dream.”
To avoid gender stereotyping, the children are not called boys or girls but friends and are equally encouraged to play with racing cars or dressing up clothes. The dolls, for example, have no obvious gender, but they do express emotions.
Lotta Rajalin said: “There is nothing wrong with the words ‘she’ or ‘he’ but we, the adults that use them, are filled with old stereotypes, old traditions, and we are burdened because we classify boys and girls and women and men. Here we want to change that. We don’t want to change the children, they don’t need correction. We adults need to correct our thinking.”
Sweden is considered a leader in gender equality and was among the first to legalise same-sex marriage, so it is not surprising that the school encourages acceptance of others’ life choices.
Anders Bengtsson, a teacher at the school, said: “When it comes to family relationships we have books about adopted children, we have refugee parents in these books. We have books about black and white parents, mixed relationships, books about single parents, books about two parents of the same sex, books about two parents, three parents, and divorced parents. We have children’s books about all the ways a family can look.”
Some people have criticised the school’s approach, but that does not bother those who send their children here.
Parent Susanne Beving said: “The children’s development is the important thing. Here they strengthen self-esteem, self-awareness, and creativity — they do a very good job.”
Like any nursery school, the accent is on preparing for the future. A future that parents hope will be a little brighter and a little more fair than in the past.
Susanne Glickman, another parent at the school, said: “I want my child to know that he is equal. That he is equal as a boy or a girl, and that he has the same opportunities as everyone else.”
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