Should Hongkongers be taught in single sex schools?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 10:22am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 12:49pm

The age-old debate between the merits of single-sex schools versus co-educational is pertinent in Hong Kong, where there are many prestigious single-sex institutions. The paired Diocesan Boys' and Diocesan Girls' schools spring to mind.

Despite the illustrious nature of such Hong Kong institutions, Janet Hyde, from the University of Wisconsin, has shown that the benefits of studying in co-educational schools often outweigh the disadvantages. The principal advantage is that students learn to interact in the real world.

If we separate the sexes, males and females will feel a perpetual need to contact each other.

The jury is out on whether single-sex schools really boost boys' overall results

Hyde and other like-minded researchers have argued that it is only natural for males and females to seek each other out, not necessarily in a sexual sense, but simply to learn how to form a society together. We need to learn to build, to create and to sustain a wider community in partnership.

But it is clear that the results of most studies on co-educational versus single-sex schools are equivocal. The jury is out on whether single-sex schools really boost boys' overall results, and particularly girls' mathematics and science results.

While some studies purport to show that girls achieve more in mathematics and science in a single-sex environment, other researchers have said that any success has stemmed from a demanding curriculum and an emphasis on extracurricular activities. These positive features would have been evident irrespective of whether the opposite sex was present.

So it is possible that students could reap rewards from single-sex education, but it is not certain.

There is no precise recipe. Combinations of ingredients would seem to be necessary for any educational magic to occur. Besides, any magic is just as likely in a co-educational setting.

Based on my experience as a native English-speaking teacher in Hong Kong for the past 16 years, I would opt for co-educational schools. I taught once in a single-sex school here and have worked for many years in a co-educational one, and I can testify to the value of gender integration.

I noticed more bullying and drama in a single-sex environment. It was a surprise to me as a teacher that the classmates in my girls' school were often keen to tell tales on each other, and do what was necessary to get a rung ahead on the class ladder.

I learned that single-sex classrooms in Hong Kong could frequently foster an unhealthy level of academic competition.

Educational research in the US has also produced inconsistent results about single-sex education reducing gender stereotypes.

In my own single-sex school teaching role, I found that the gender stereotype of girls' "catty" behaviour was reinforced.

Now that I have been working in a co-educational environment for several years, I think that these students in Hong Kong do achieve good academic results. Furthermore, and crucially, they are exposed to the company of the other gender and are better prepared for adult life.

Considering the evidence as to the superiority of single-sex schools is so patchy, if not contradictory, it would seem premature for us to abandon all the benefits that accrue from our having strong and flourishing co-educational schools.

We should, rather, allow them to bloom.

Perry Bayer is secretary of Nesta (Native English-speaking Teachers Association)