Hollie Panther portrait

Written by Hollie Panther

DEI Lead, Mental Health First Aider, secondary Science & Psychology teacher and Teach First Ambassador.

Should they still exist in this day and age?

Currently in the UK around 10% of state secondary schools are single-sex (most secondary schools in England were single-sex until the 1970s in England, though in Scotland and Wales there has always been more of a co-ed approach). Broadly, I feel that segregating learners based on any characteristic that doesn’t directly affect their learning should stop (i.e. I’m still for schools that specialise in SEND and disability, and those that specialise in educating learners with behavioural issues — though I wonder if such learners would in fact benefit from incorporation into mainstream schools if done well, as opposed to lumping them in there due to budget restrictions?). Interestingly, nowadays it seems single-sex schools don’t technically prevent other-sexed learners from joining, just as religious schools don’t technically prevent learners joining who follow religions other than that the school centers on, and indeed, learners who come out as trans aren’t made to change schools, due to protection under the 2010 Equality Act.

When engaging with some of the research literature on this topic, it was difficult to find a clear answer as to whether single-sex schooling improves academic outcomes. With a critical hat on, it seemed much of the evidence may have been subject to confirmation bias — that is, that researchers set out to find support for their preferred method of education. There is some evidence for the idea that gender stereotypical subject uptake (i.e. English for girls and STEM for boys) occurs less in single-sex schools, but after I stumbled across a study published in possibly the most highly regarded journal within science, ‘Science’, I decided I’d look no further:

The authors argued that the movement towards single-sex education “is deeply misguided, and often justified by weak, cherry-picked, or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence”. The study goes on to conclude that “there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.” (Halpern et al., 2011)

One more, slightly perpendicular, point on research in this area: I’d bet most of the research cited in arguments for single-sex schooling doesn’t consider trans and non-binary pupils. Interestingly, there is evidence suggesting that girls’ schools tend to be better set up to support gender-diverse pupils than boys’ or co-ed schools, due to their more critical and less binary approach to gender (Renz, 2020). It will be interesting to see what effects research finds on trans and non-binary pupils in different types of schools going forward, now that such learners are being considered more in this research area. Even though such pupils are a minority, their experiences are valid and deserve to be described when taking into account whether to legislate on single-sex schooling.

Having taught science in a ‘boys’’ school, I can’t say I noticed any advantages to it being single-sex. Female sixth formers talked of a culture of sexual harassment from younger male pupils which they believed came from girls not being usualised in the school. After trans and non-binary pupils started coming out in the school community, questions were raised as to whether to drop the ‘Boys’ from the school’s name altogether — I would be in favour of this, and more.

Ultimately, I’m against single-sex schooling as I can’t see any real benefits and don’t really see that it has a place within modern society. Single-sex education came about because society believed that men and women should learn different things, due to their differing abilities and also roles within society. Racial segregation in education came about for similar reasons, and no-one would suggest that was a sensible thing to continue, even if one race would do better out of single-race schools.

Let’s move forwards and scrap single-sex schools.