Co-education or single-sex? – look for a school where individuality is valued
Lee Glaser, Headmaster of Taunton School
‘Men are from Mars and women are from Venus’– or apparently not, according to a study published in November 2015 by a team from Tel Aviv University. This study has shown that there’s really not much in the way of difference between male brains and female brains. There are features that are more prevalent in the brains of women and features that are more prevalent in the brains of men. But human brains tend to have a highly individual mix of such characteristics.
Interestingly, while hardly anyone has anything like the full set of mostly male features or the full set of mostly female features, by no means everyone with a significant collection of ‘female end’ features is female, and vice versa. What’s more, many of these characteristics aren’t fixed. Environment and experience also play their part in shaping the brain, increasing its individuality.
The word I like best in these findings is ‘individuality’. As Headmaster of a co-educational school, I am acutely aware that many boys and girls approach learning in different ways. Indeed, we take pride as a school in implementing strategies to improve attainment for both boys and girls. But there are no neat, gender-specific answers to learning. Each individual has their own learning style, often described as visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or tactile, independent of their gender. Finding a school that can address the learning style of your child or children may be an important factor in overall achievement.
As well as accommodating your child’s learning style, think about the type of school it is, whether it will suit your child and how it may shape your child’s outlook. Is it selective or non-selective, does it demonstrate co-curricular breadth or is it focused on one particular specialism like music or sport? Is it large or small, does it have a full boarding or weekly boarding, does it have a diverse range of pupils?
There are powerful and compelling arguments for having boys and girls in the same school for social and emotional reasons. Far healthier relationships can be formed if boys and girls grow up working, learning and playing alongside each other and learn to accept each other as human beings first and foremost. In a world that is competitive and increasingly global, where men and women work alongside each other in every sort of environment, it is important girls and boys learn these same life skills at one of the most important stages of development in their lives.
Many parents, particularly those working in the armed services, prioritise keeping brothers and sisters together at boarding school so they can provide sibling support to each other even when their parents are overseas.
Part of a group
Despite the fact that we are all clearly individuals, boys and girls (in fact all of us) generally resist the idea of total individuality. People – girls and boys, women and men – are attracted to the idea that they are part of a group of like-minded others. Whether it’s family, nation, religion, the football team you support, the political views you hold, the music you prefer dancing to, or the sort of clothes you wear, it’s all about sharing your values with like-minded people. Girls often like being with girls; boys like being with boys.
In a co-ed environment, it is important to remember girls and boys do have time on their own as groups, particularly in boarding schools. Houses are almost always single-sex, so in the evenings pupils are with those of their own gender. Sport is usually split into boys and girls too although there are plenty of opportunities for mixed teams as well – athletics, tennis, swimming to name but a few. Pupils are never together every minute of every day. There is ample space for them to grow and develop, both together and with those of their own gender.
So girls have plenty of chance to grow up, be on their own and be with other girls when they want to, as do boys. In their houses, younger pupils see the older pupils of their own sex acting as the role models. In good co-ed schools, men and women share the top posts, again giving both boys and girls figures of their own gender to admire and emulate.
So, is single-sex versus co-ed the most important question parents should be asking? There are more important, broader questions to consider. What is the quality of teaching, the focus of the school, the curriculum on offer, the universities and courses that pupils go on to and, most importantly, is it a school where your child will be happy? Do the aims of the school include helping children to respect different opinions, cultures and backgrounds? Will children fulfil their potential in music, in sport, in art and on the academic front? Will it prepare children for their place in the outside world as well-rounded human beings? Long may diversity flourish.
Lee Glaser is Headmaster of Taunton School. Lee was Deputy Head at Taunton School for five years before his appointment as Headmaster in January 2015. Before Taunton, Lee was Senior Master and Director of Sport at Millfield. He began his career as a Chartered Accountant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers before training to become a Mathematics teacher.