Published: 06:00, 04 October 2020
“I love teaching in a boys’ only school. Boys are fun, forgiving, funny and full of energy.”
So says Helen McClure, the new headmistress at Solefield School in the heart of Sevenoaks , sparking a new debate on the benefits of single-sex versus co-educational schooling.
Solefield is one of very few boys-only prep schools (the independent sector's equivalent to primaries) in the south east and with all local authority primary schools being of mixed sex, Mrs McClure is often asked whether it is advantageous that her school is single-sex.
“Yes," she said. "Critics of single-sex schooling may say that all boys' schools perpetuate misogyny and that gender stereotypes are reinforced.
"But in my opinion, same-sex schools can actually help both genders to become more developmentally rounded. At Solefield, boys learn to nurture younger pupils, show and respond to kindness.
"Our pupils are encouraged to talk about their emotions in regular and focussed pastoral sessions and in lessons, we actively work against toxic masculinity. "
Staff at the school have tailored their teaching to suit the way boys tend to learn better, with Mrs McClure adding: "While always being careful not to gender-stereotype, there is evidence to suggest that boys and girls do develop neurologically in different ways.
"For example, in girls the language areas of the brain develop first whereas with boys their visual-spatial areas develop early. Girls generally refine their reading and writing skills at a younger age and boys can feel intimidated early on in their schooling in comparison.
"Boys, generally speaking, are hard-wired to learn more easily through actions rather than words."
Mrs McClure explained : "Researchers have found that a boy’s brain responds well to movement, space, action and rest and that they also learn better when material is presented in small portions.
"At Solefield, my teachers design lessons that maximise boys’ spatial abilities in fun and interactive tasks and that plays to this strength.
"We cater to boys’ learning preferences and teach in ways that boys learn and respond to best, with a strong competitive and active component.
Mrs McClure also argued that boys often like to move around to help them stay alert. She said: "We have replaced didactic lessons with interactive ones that encourage movement and alertness."
"An activity as simple as having pupils throw a ball to one another when answering questions around class can be extremely effective. It keeps the boys active, alert, and engaged.
"We find that even moving from room to room around our site helps to keep them focussed in lessons as it builds in a couple of minutes for movement and a 'brain break'."
Mrs McClure also asserted that boys thrived on competition.She said: "Our teachers have found that a competition in the classroom can lead to a dramatic jump in engagement.
"Beyond adding an element of fun to the classroom, competition teaches important life lessons like the teamwork, problem-solving and working toward a common goal."
"Parents often comment on our bright, airy classrooms and our boys enjoy lots of outdoor learning..."
Additionally, Mrs McClure argued that emotional development between the sexes can vary a great deal.
She said: "It can be difficult to cater for those differences in a co-ed environment.
"Teaching in an all boys’ environment allows us to select appropriate texts and topics and to work with pupils at similar levels of emotional development, creating a space that allows for more effective discussion."
Mrs McClure also uses research fromLiveScience that suggests different sexes react differently to different lighting with boys’ eyes function best in bright, natural light.
By contrast, she said, girls are often better at seeing in dim light and at night.
She said: "Parents often comment on our bright, airy classrooms and our boys enjoy lots of outdoor learning."
Finally she said that boys tended to be "relational learners." and are more likely to excel when a teacher is seen as a mentor and educator. Her staff are assisted in that role by the small class sizes at Solefield - commonly only 12 to 15 to the class.
The teachers are able to spend a lot of time in pastoral care of the boys and also lead them in games, after-school activities and trips.
The ratio of male to female teaching staff at Solefield is almost 50:50, which is an extremely high level of male staff compared with most primary schools where 91% of teaching staff are commonly female.
Mrs McClure said: "It is important for boys to understand that men can be interested in education, the arts, reading, talking about emotions and nurture and at the same time for them to see women in leadership roles."
The onset of adolescence only increases the advantages of same sex education, according to Mrs McClure. Her pupils stay until age 13. In the state system, her Year 7 and8 classes would already be in secondary school.
She said: "These years are a real developmental milestone for boys as it is a time of many physical, mental, emotional, and social changes. At this age, boys can start to become very self-conscious and easily distracted by the opposite sex.
"They can be more influenced by their peer group and they start to make more of their own choices about friends, sports, studying and school. They develop a stronger sense of right and wrong and can also feel stress from more challenging school work.
"Understanding these key differences in the way that boys learn and develop is essential in delivering an effective and stimulating education that leads to academic success."
If Mrs McClure is right and single-sex education is the best route, then the country is heading in the wrong direction. According to research by the Daily Telegraph the number of single-sex schools has halved since the 1990s.
Even in the independent schools sector only 12% of schools are girls-only and only 10% boys-only. In the state sector, of the country's 3,260 comprehensive schools, only 5% are girls only and only 3% boys only.
The picture is different in state selective schools - the grammars, where more than a third remain single sex education.
In Kent, that trend is even more noticable. Of the county's 32 grammars, only five areco-educational (15 are for boys and 12 for girls).
Is that proof that single sex education leads to better academic results?
Mrs McClure thinks it does. She said: "Children in single sex senior schools are able to study in an environment which recognises the physical and emotional differences between the sexes."
"Both boys and girls are less likely to be intimidated or embarrassed amongst their peers and are more likely to contribute to lessons."
But there is a contrary view from the headmaster of one of Kent's few mixed grammars - Cranbrook School.
DrJohn Weeds thinks a classroom of boys and girls is the best preparation for adult life, and said: "What is the world of adulthood if it is not mixed and diverse?
"Single sex schooling does not provide the same kind of social and cultural mix as mixed schools. Often students from a single sex background go off to college or university or into the workplace with too little experience of 'the other half'.
"I would wager that some of the worst excesses of student behaviour at our universities are a product of the narrow offering of some - sometimes well known - single sex schools which sadly do not enable their pupils - perhaps boys more than girls - to grow up before they leave home."
Dr Weeds said: "To generalise, and again from my biased perspective, girls can be a great leveller of the immaturity of some boys. Some girls on the other hand may benefit from experiencing the tendency of boys to push boundaries."
"We often talk in schools about the 'hidden curriculum' – the stuff that is learnt, but not from a textbook. Learning early on about the differences of the opposite sex and learning to respect these are probably the most valuable lessons from this curriculum."
Jamie MacLean is head at the co-educational Dover Christ Church Academy in Melbourne Avenue, Dover .
He was previously deputy head at the Norton Knatchbull Boys Grammar in Ashford - so has experience of both types of schooling.
He said: "Across the nation, boys tend to perform worse than girls academically up until GCSE age. The last figure I saw suggested they were nearly a third of a grade below girls on average."
"I think co-educational schooling can help redress that. It's certainly my perception that boys perform better in a class with girls. I think it's to do with the level of maturity. It's a generalisation of course, but boys tend not to be so mature in their outlook as girls of the same age."
But if boys benefit from girls in the class, does that mean the girls are being pulled down? Mr MacLean said: "No, I think there are advantages for girls too in mixed classes.
"In all girls schools, especially grammar schools, there can me enormous pressure on the girls to achieve - not so much from the teachers as from the other girls, which can be emotionally challenging.
"My own daughter is at an all girls grammar school, and although I was very happy for her to go there, that is something I worry about.
"Mixed classes help reverse some of those anxieties and create a more level playing field."
So why are so many grammar schools in Kent still single-sex?
He said: "I think it's just a tradition. Many are very old and are rightly proud of their long histories. Here at Dover Christ Church we are relatively young, established in the 1960s, and have already undergone many changes. We are just more used to transition."
Mr MacLean said that beyond school, mixed lessons were a better training for life. He said: "I think the more diversity there is in the classroom - gender, race, religion, rich, poor - the healthier it is."
"One thing I will say, and you can make your own mind up whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, boys in single sex schools stay younger for longer, they are more innocent.
"For example, boys in single sex schools will still be kicking a ball around at lunchtime when they are 16. Boys in co-ed schools have stopped doing that - it's no longer 'cool'."
A final word to Dr Rowland Speller, head teacher at the Abbey School in London Road, Faversham . He said: "Every school is built on different values, beliefs and systems which importantly creates a range of genuine options for parents to decide between when making a choice about the education for their child.
"I think the more diversity there is in the classroom - gender, race, religion, rich, poor - the healthier it is..."
"The issue of single sex vs co-educational schooling is just one of a large range of possibilities to be taken into consideration when choosing. Some parents may have particularly strident views on this issue and therefore weight it more heavily in their decision making.
"For others, alternative aspects of school life (such as school ethos, extra-curricular opportunities, or academic specialisms) may be more important factors when weighing-up potential choices.
Dr Speller said: "It goes without saying that historically single sex schools were popular. They were often rooted in the belief that education for boys and girls needed to be managed differently to prepare them for the world they would enter as adults.
"Today, some of that rationale has changed due to the importance modern society rightly places on gender equality.
"Nonetheless, there are many that still make a case for single sex education based on arguments around differences in the development of each gender (e.g. biologically, psychologically, or socially).
"There are also some parents that may have individual religious beliefs that are the basis of a single sex school preference.
"Overall, I do not personally believe it makes a huge difference, but respect the opinions of those that do. I much prefer an educational system with plurality of school types to one where they all look the same."