Co-ed vs single gender schools | The pros and cons

For some parents, whether to send their children to single sex or co-educational schools is an easy decision to make, often informed by religious or cultural convictions. But for those trying to make an objective choice, it seems that for every point in favour of one model of education there is an equally convincing argument for its opposite. You can also read our article on finding the right school for your child here.

Single sex schools claim that they enable pupils to be taught in the way that best suits them – not that boys and girls necessarily learn differently, but rather that different teaching methods may be more effective for them. Co-ed schools counter this by saying that boys and girls need to learn to work together since that is the nature of university and employment out there in the ‘real world,’ and insulating children from these realities doesn’t solve anything. Single sex schools say that their pupils flourish in an environment free of gender stereotypes. Co-ed schools…well, you get the picture.

At primary level in the state sector, single sex schools are unusual but London does have many independent preps and pre-preps offering boys only and girls only education. Often these are the junior departments of long-established single-sex senior schools. Separating children at this age allows for them to learn at different paces, the suggestion being that girls are better in areas of literacy, whereas boys tend to do better with numbers. If your child is an academic wiz from a young age they will most likely excel in either environment.

Lovers of league tables will tell you that As and A*s come to those who segregate and those who do not. North London Collegiate and St Paul’s – single sex schools teaching girls and boys respectively – are regular high flyers for A level performance, rubbing shoulders with co-ed schools such as Highgate. And in the state sector, most of the capital’s highest performing schools – The Oratory (boys), Henrietta Barnett (girls) – are also single sex. So far, so confusing.

A closer look at those UK A level league tables also reveals that single sex schools with co-ed sixth forms do extremely well: Westminster School and King’s College School, Wimbledon are boys’ schools that take girls in the sixth form and are in the top ten nationwide for results. Of course, the common factor for these schools is that they are academically selective; offering sixth form places to equally high achieving girls is win-win for them, boosting not only exam results but also pupil retention.

Some studies have shown that particularly for teenagers, the absence of the opposite sex in the classroom can improve outcomes: girls are more comfortable putting their hands up in science lessons; ditto boys in English lessons. Choice of GCSE and A level subjects has also been shown to differ between school types, with significantly more girls choosing to study Science and Maths-heavy subjects at all girls’ schools compared with mixed schools. Boys at single sex schools may continue for longer with extra-curricular interests such as music and drama.

There are a number of single-sex schools which have a sister – or should that be brother – school with which they join together on certain occasions. They may share extra-curricular time and facilities as well as combining for big school concerts or plays. It is not unheard of for a pupil at a girls’ or boys’ school to travel to the partner school in order to attend lessons in a subject which their own school does not provide. Even at a single-sex school, complete isolation from the opposite sex is unusual.

When it comes to boarding schools, all have separate boys’ and girls’ boarding houses, meaning lessons are co-ed, but domestic life is single sex.

So, if the best co-ed and single sex schools are on a par academically, pastorally and socially, how do parents choose?

Put to one side the league table comparisons, the charismatic heads and fantastic facilities; talk to your child and think about where he or she would be happiest – not just now, but when they’re older. In the end, the best school is the one that is right for your child, a place where they can flourish and be happy.

The Good Schools Guide is the leading, independent source of information on schools in the UK, helping parents with every aspect of choosing the best education for their children. Visit call  0800 368 7694 to learn more.