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Mixed and Single-sex Grouping in Secondary Schools
Fashion and doctrinaire belief can influence educational practice, even when almost every rational argument - or just plain common-sense - should pull us in the opposite direction. Educational planners in the U.K. and most liberal societies have taken it for granted over the last few decades that coeducational schools are as desirable in our new egalitarian age as are mixed-ability classes. The effectiveness of the latter in improving overall education has been questioned for some time now by students of school achievement, and that of the former is beginning to give rise to some doubts in the minds of those concerned with the individual attainment-levels of girls and boys.
For the purpose of this article I shall assume that there are over-powering arguments for the coeducation of children up to the age of eleven and after the age of sixteen. It is the middle period which seems to demand closer inspection
In the field of mental development, it has long been apparent that girls mature more rapidly here as they do physically, at least up to the age of fourteen or so. Yet in mixed schools, girls are presented with the same intellectual diet as boys, despite their different appetites (how would the community react if boys were only allowed to eat as much as girls at this stage?). The loss of valuable learning time and resultant frustration are accepted by teachers in the interests of 'civilisation': 'The boys need girls around', they will say, 'They're such a civilising influence!' This argument might hold good after sixteen when the boys have, as it were, caught up to some extent. Before this, the girl and boy groups in a class are usually so polarised that mixing may even exacerbate aggression.
On the emotional score, there seem to be distinct advantages in segregation. Both boys and girls become emotionally supercharged at this stage, but again, the girl's emotional drives put her at a relative disadvantage in the mixed classroom, especially if she is bright. Whilst bright boys are driven to argue and assert themselves and to be intellectually ambitious, bright girls are torn by the desperate need to be attractive (doubly desperate if they sense that they are ugly) and to play down their own intellectual abilities. If they choose to suppress instinct and instead assume an independent, achieving role, they will be ostracised both by boys and by other girls. If they can be in school for academic learning, and spend leisure (social-learning) hours in mixed company, it seems that girls may be able to be true both to their intellectual potential and to their emotional drives.
On all scores then, there seems to be some case for segregation between eleven and sixteen. If society is to benefit fully from the intellectual and emotional potential of women, we shall have to ensure that they retain without shame their different qualities, and this may well be achieved by a period of separate education.
What society needs from women newly emancipated from domestic chores is a genuinely different view of life; and the foundations for this may best be provided by separate schooling at the critical time. Such schooling has advantages in terms of both solidarity and polarity; solidarity as a bond with other women who have experienced the same kind of physical and emotional development themselves and have matured there-after in diverse ways: and polarity as a true alternative to the male approach to life. The world cannot afford to have more aggression, more egocentricity, or more ambition than it already has.
Even in the Soviet Union, where coeducation was the rule from the time of the Revolution up to the Second World War, the consideration that "... because of their differences, equal treatment must involve separate education" led to the segregation of secondary schools which lasted for about fifteen years, from 1943 to the late 1950s. The decision to segregate the sexes was reversed, not because segregation had proved unsatisfactory, but because it had proved impractical to provide separate facilities and teachers, especially in outlying areas. The education of girls in the USSR, with its large number of cultural and religious minorities, presents special problems:
In Turkmenia, it is said, the least well-educated girls command the highest prices, while the cheapest of all are those with higher educational qualifications; . they know too much and will not submit to their husbands as dutiful servants.
Practice in other cultures leads us to the question of provision for minority groups in our own society. If all state schools are coeducational, as most already are, this fact alone will contribute greatly to racial tension. Many girls whose backgrounds prescribe different behaviour for them from that which is expected of girls in our society, suffer intensely if forced into close contact with boys. It will not do to say, as many egalitarians do, that if they are in Britain the families of the girls concerned must accept our standards, for it is not only the disapproval of the family which is at stake: the girls themselves are torn between a sense of family and group loyalty which drives them to conform with one code, and a sense of peer group and school solidarity which drives them in the opposite direction.
Recent work on classroom relationships suggests that there are discrepancies in the type of criticism meted out to girls and boys. Boys are criticised far more often than girls, but they are criticised for different things. Boys are usually criticised for sloppy presentation: this is surmountable. Girls are more often criticised for intellectual content: this is less easily surmountable. Again, boys' work is more scrupulously corrected than girls' work, as though there might be something impolite about pointing out a female child's errors to her. Finally when they do fail, boys and girls tend to have different attitudes to their teacher. One example quoted is that of Jill and Matthew
. who are equal bottom of the chemistry class at the end of the second year. Jill says she's no good at it. Matthew says the teacher's a fool and besides, he's been bunking off. Jill is going to drop chemistry, Matthew isn't
But why do girls immediately attribute failure to their own inadequacy so much more readily than boys do?
Paradoxically, the comprehensive system which was hailed as the great opener of closed doors, seems to be closing almost as many doors as it opens. In particular, the polarisation of boys and girls into science and art blocks respectively seems much more marked in mixed comprehensives than elsewhere. This is probably due to pressure of social class. Sex stereotypes are much stronger in the working-class tradition than in the middle-class. In most middle-class families it is not usually considered effeminate for boys to study languages, nor is it looked on as unmanly to show an interest in general culture. It is, however, extremely difficult to teach a language to a mixed group of largely working-class children, where there is little overlap of interests between the sexes. The boys will refuse to accept topics like shopping: the girls will groan or go silent at sport or cars: and neither will tolerate items of historical or general cultural interest.
It is fashionable to refer to the hidden curriculum whenever one talks of schools in any context. What does the hidden curriculum teach girls in mixed comprehensives? It teaches them something about hierarchy: they see that women seldom reach top position (principal, head of department, even in departments like modern languages where there is usually a preponderance of female staff), that women invariably do the secretarial work of the school (under the direction of the male principal) and clean the building (under the direction of the male caretaker) . The situation is quite different in girls' schools where all jobs are usually done, and no less competently done, by women.
As the prevailing egalitarian movement gathers strength, there seems little hope that segregated teaching between eleven and sixteen will come back into fashion, just as there seems little prospect of the establishment of a system of schooling which separates those who, given encouragement, want to learn and are psychologically capable of doing so and those who do not. From the age of eight onwards, in my 5-to-14, three class elementary school, I was a martyr to Sam Cross and Billy Whitwell. Neither of these two gentlemen, having reached the age of twelve and thirteen respectively, could read or write, and it was my appointed task to sit between them for an hour every day to teach them these skills. They made my life a misery, pulling my plaits, kicking my shins and generally convincing me that boys were uncouth and insufferable. The County Scholarship to the local Girls' High School which I won at ten was my passport to freedom from Sam Cross and Billy Whitwell. I pity many of the bright and ambitious girls of today who are destined to suffer Sam and Billy throughout their schooldays. There are few passports to such freedom for intelligent girls these days.
The author mentions some advantages of single-sex schooling and some disadvantages of co-educational schooling. The information can be summarised in a table.