Why choice in education works

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2006

It’s probably because I went to a single-sex school (for boys, I hasten to add) that I am utterly opposed to single-sex education.

Nothing seems so guaranteed to perpetuate the sex war than to separate boys and girls during their most formative years, only to re-unite them once their ideas about social interaction are firmly fixed. All kids deserve an all-round education that prepares them for their life to come. How some kind of perverse Platonic experiment in social engineering is designed to achieve that has never been clear to me.

Two weeks ago, St Hilda’s – Oxford University’s last single-sex college – finally bowed to the inevitable, and agreed to admit male tutors and students through its doors. Why? Certainly Oxford’s recruitment policies (unlike those of Cambridge) made it more difficult for St Hilda’s to attract high-calibre staff, especially in the sciences. But it was also, and more importantly, because fewer and fewer female Oxford applicants were choosing St Hilda’s as their preferred college. Today’s young women simply do not see why they should need to be segregated from the boys to be able to get on in life.

I work for St Anne’s College, one of the first of the women’s colleges to elect to go mixed, a generation ago, in 1978. Highly controversial at the time, there are still a handful of alumnae (albeit a diminishing number) who have never quite forgiven the College. Yet those with daughters now about to apply to Oxford, are often struck by the bemused indifference with which the prospect of ending up at an all-women college is regarded. The sex-war is by no means over, but sex apartheid is no longer seen to be the relevant battleground.

And with good reason. The single most important educational inequality today – and one which hits boys and girls alike – is social inequality: that is what is most likely to determine success or failure at school.

This is one of the conclusions which appears to have been reached by Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, who was commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference to investigate the world-wide effects of single-sex education on pupils’ attainments. The findings have today been published in The Observer:

“The reason people think single-sex schools are better is because they do well in league tables,” said Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research. “But they are generally independent, grammar or former grammar schools and they do well because of the ability and social background of the pupils.” Their success should not be used to argue it is better to separate girls and boys in other settings, he added. Smithers said headteachers made “exaggerated claims” about the benefits of girl-only schools because they were under threat.

Crucial to the success of single-sex schools – whether for boys or girls – is the active engagement of parents in choosing where their child will be educated. Those parents who seek out a school for their child, for whatever reason – whether for religious, sex, ethos or curriculum reasons – are likely to be more motivated to see their child achieve.

The logic is clear. We need a range of schools which cater for the individual and various needs of children so that parents and children, together, can choose the school which best fits their aspirations. Though all schools should deliver the teaching needed for core literacy and numeracy, each school should be able to specialise, to develop ways to add value to the wider experience of its pupils.

Yes, every child should have access to a good local school. But we should recognise that for many children and their parents that is simply not enough any more. Parents want greater choice. And the evidence is that when they have that choice their children perform better.