Sex and academic bottom line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2005, 12:00am

JENNY LAM does not feel she missed out by going to an all-girls' school. Rather, she felt she had better all-round education and a chance to develop strength of character than she would have had if boys had been in the picture.

'I think single sex schools may help girls concentrate on their studies,' said the former Heep Yunn School student, now 24, who went on to study social sciences at the University of Hong Kong and now works for a charity.

'Girls' schools are really character building. Whenever there was a function we had to do all the planning and organising ourselves, not to mention moving the heavy stuff. We learned to be independent.'

St Paul's Convent School student Jermaine Wong Jan-man has a different view. 'About half of the girls at my school cannot cope with boys,' she said. 'They think only about relationships. They don't know how to see them as friends.'

She went to a co-educational primary school before joining the elite, all-girls' school in Causeway Bay. A mixed class, she said, was better because it was 'a small version of society'.

Relationships are very much on the minds of students in a co-educational English Schools Foundation secondary school too, as children discuss who is dating who in a fashion that would send shudders down the spines of any parent who has forgotten adolescence or led sheltered teen years.

Would girls be better off cloistered away from the boys? 'No,' said one Year Ten ESF student. 'Girls in single-sex schools can be worse. They're so cut off that they spend their time fantasising about boys. And they can be real bitches.'

No one in Hong Kong suggests that single sex education is best for all girls or boys. Rather, it is a matter of choice for parents and children.

Choice is available, thanks to a historical legacy which means that one in five Hong Kong secondary schools are single-sex, rooted in the missionary culture that gave rise to them. Such schools, run mainly by churches, were long the norm, with the co-educational alternative arriving only after the second world war. According to education historian Tony Sweeting, schools needed to expand quickly to cater for growing numbers of students, and did so by admitting both boys and girls.

Today, single-sex schools excel, both academically and in their extra-curricular activities. Top academic performers include, among others, Diocesan Girls' School, St Paul's Convent School and Maryknoll Convent School for the girls, and Diocesesan Boys' School, St Paul's College and Queen's College for the boys.

Long gone are the days when the main purpose of girls' schools was to prepare young ladies for marriage to the more well-to-do men, Professor Sweeting said.

Those who support single sex schooling, in Hong Kong or the west, argue that academic results for both boys and girls improve by separating the sexes. This is backed by recent research by Cambridge University, which found that boys and girls concentrated more and achieved higher exam results when taught separately, for some classes.

Girls benefited the most, though the study warned that 'bitchiness' in all-girl classes could cause friction, and that their compliance could mask underachievement.

It also warned that all-boy classes could succumb to macho and sexist behaviour if poorly planned.

While the underperformance of boys is a concern in many countries and fuels the demand for all-boys schools, proponents of all-girls' schooling believe single sex schools help girls combat stereotyping as they embark on their careers.

In the west, girls are less likely than boys to study science and technical subjects. In Hong Kong there are fewer cultural barriers, with science streams after Form Three catering for the most academically able, and girls well-represented. This is reflected in HKCEE and A-level results, as well as the banding of students for Form One places. About 40 per cent of girls achieve 'band one' status for secondary places allocation, compared with just 27 per cent of boys, according to the Education and Manpower Bureau.

The top all-girls' schools focus even more on sciences. Sister Margaret Wong, principal of St Paul's Convent School, said that 60 to 70 per cent of her A-level students opted for maths, economics and sciences. 'The girls prefer to take more sciences than arts. They feel that once you have a certain level of education subjects like art and history can be learnt on your own, whereas science concepts can be difficult to understand without a tutor. This means our girls win in both worlds,' she said.

She also used the '16 habits of the mind' programme developed by Professor Arthur Costa, of California State University, to encourage her girls to think independently, to be persistent and be ready to take risks, characteristics Sister Margaret believed were traditionally more associated with men. 'Obviously there are biological differences between boys and girls, but the environment can exaggerate or level them out,' she said, adding that St Paul's encouraged girls to take on leadership roles.

The school, however, has not lost touch with the feminine side. Sister Margaret proudly shows her visitors its model apartment where girls can practise home-making and entertaining skills.

Stella Lau Kun Lai-kuen, principal of Diocesan Girls' School, thinks girls concentrate more easily and are more relaxed in a single-sex environment. 'The world is getting more competitive. They have one thing less to worry about,' she said.

The school had long strived for women to excel. 'The academics have always been emphasised, along with moral training and character building,' she said. Single-sex or co-educational schooling were matters of preference, she stressed.

Terence Chang Cheuk-cheung, principal of Diocesan Boys' School, believes boys benefit from a single-sex environment. 'They can concentrate more,' he said. They thrived in a freer atmosphere.

Phyllis Lo Kam-lai, head of the primary section, said: 'The boys can have a higher self-esteem, because in most schools girls achieve better. Their characters and personalities are different.'

Many boarding schools overseas - particularly those with long histories - are single-sex. Kim Gordon, principal of the Bishop Strachan School, Toronto, who visited Hong Kong this year, argued that girls achieved greater success in single-sex schools.

'I do not believe there are capability differences,' she said, referring to comments by Harvard University president Lawrence Summers that girls may be inherently less likely to excel in sciences than boys.

'But girls are not ending up on an equal footing in the workplace. It's not because they can't do it. It's not because they have an innate inability to perform at those levels. It's much more complex. A girls' school helps you deal with some of the complexities that are cultural and stereotyping.'

Ms Gordon has 25 years' experience in co-educational schooling and seven at the Bishop Strachan girls' boarding school. While she said there were 'indisputable' physiological differences between the brains of girls and boys, she believed it was teaching styles, upbringing and cultural dictates that determined performance.

Timothy Ha Wing-ho, principal of the all-boys St Paul's College, is ambivalent about the benefits of segregating students. 'The main strength of a single-sex school is a greater school spirit,' he said.

Still, Mr Ha, who also chairs the Hong Kong Association of Sponsoring Bodies of Schools, said that the social environment of single-sex schools was inadequate.

To address this St Paul's admits girls in Form Six, but they make up a mere 10 per cent of the intake.

'If you were operating in a vacuum, I would prefer co-educational schools because education is to do with nurturing, maturation and social development. Everything else being equal, co-educational school is closer to a microcosm of society,' he said.

Mak Chen Wen-ning, principal of the co-educational Queen Elizabeth School Old Students' Association Secondary School in Tin Shui Wai, who is a physicist by training, doesn't believe a single-sex environment is necessary for boys or girls to achieve their full potential.

However, it was important for girls to be inspired by women in senior positions, in school and the workforce, she said. Her school also tried to support the needs of particular girls and boys by profiling their abilities in languages and maths, and their attitudes to learning, and matching them to the most suitable class.

'I'm very gender aware,' Ms Mak said. 'For the sciences, IT and maths I deliberately hunted for female staff and we have a very good balance of men and women.'

Additional reporting by Katherine Forestier.