Why I'm glad I sent my son to a single sex school

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Sending our children to single sex schools was never part of the plan. When I dreamed up the life I wanted for my children, it included co-ed schooling. After all, girls and boys and men and women need to collaborate in broader society and this ideally should apply to schooling too, right? Surely in an all-male educational environment there will be no female friends, nor awareness of the issues that affect girls.

This goal intensified once I had my children. We now had three boys and most of our friends did too. I could never have predicted that my three long-time girlfriends and I would have 9 boys between us. My kids have one girl cousin among four boy cousins. I worried about the gender imbalance, that my boys would never grow up with close female peers in their lives setting examples for them about girls and women. In a house with four males and just one female (if you don't include the cat), co-ed schooling was highly desirable.

My eldest child made his way through early primary school and into Year 4, with us noticing his increasing disengagement in the last two years. We tried to address what was going on; our formerly excitable, bubbly kid was losing interest in school. He said he was fidgety in class and that the boys were constantly being told to look at how non-physical the girls were, that it was a model of behaviour they should emulate.

The school worked with us but there was no room in the curriculum for more physical activity for the class in a school day, so the strategies centred on him trying to be still. By Year 4 he had certainly learned to be still, and in the process lost his love of learning. He had submitted himself to the idea that to be himself was bad, so he just gave up. Sure, he went through the motions, did his work to a (for him) low standard and wished away every school day waiting for 3 o'clock, the weekend and school holidays. 

While encouraging models of good behaviour is necessary, the gender divide was never more apparent when it became dependent on being able to stay still. And of course he was doing sport outside of school - we did our best to take responsibility for his activity levels.

I would never say that there aren't girls who need just as much physical activity as boys, but research conducted has shown that girls are 17% less active than boys due to a number of factors including having much less support to engage in physical activity.

Are we as parents and educators subconsciously teaching girls to be less active? Praising them for how still they can be rather than catering for the significant physical needs of all children?

I would argue that these constructs around girls and boys contribute to gender gaps and do neither sex any favours. Yet in our co-ed setting it seemed that the default was to less physical activity because many of the girls were held to that ideal and rose to meet it. Those who didn't were the girl troublemakers.

An opportunity arose for him to start at a new school for Year 5. We had put his name down years beforehand at a private boys school local to us and he was called up for an entry interview. He leapt at the chance once he saw their sporting programs and special interest areas. We liked the way the curriculum was structured to be student-led, collaborative and project-based.

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The one big strike against it was that it was an all-boys school. Spurred on by our son's enthusiasm, we decided to go for it, saying that it was a 2 year trial and if it didn't work out, he'd go to the high school we had planned to send him to for Year 7.

He's now well into his third year there in a large cohort of 200 boys and we couldn't be happier, much to my surprise. With sport twice a day, he is so physically active that he's actually tired at the end of the day, and who's to say an all-boys cohort can't be diverse? Gender is just one aspect of diversity.

In some ways, the fact that they are all boys means there is a model of diversity in place, which sounds contradictory until you see it in action; the diverse ways of being a boy is expressed 200 times over. 

He has found opportunities for female friendship that I could never have anticipated. He meets girls at sports camps, school dances and forms bonds with his friend's sisters. 

He goes out of his way to forge female friendships and maintain them, which involves developing some extra skills because he doesn't see them every day at school. He initiates outings to the movies, talks on the phone and has conversations by text.

It's not their job to be role models or to teach him about feminism - that's our job as his family and we're doing well at it. He is conscientious and aware in an appropriate way for his age.

Several boys chose the oppression of women and girls, and feminism for their end of year projects last year and gave seminars about it to the wider school community. The school is proactive about addressing sexism, misogyny and men's violence against women in its curriculum. 

All of this said, it doesn't mean I'm unaware of the potential problems of single-sex schooling. Certainly there is the unacceptable behaviour we hear about in the news and that single-sex schools can be hotbeds of gender-based elitism; boys clubs looking after their own. And transgender girls still presenting as boys would of course have a completely different experience in a boys school. 

While acknowledging these issues, I also say that these things happen everywhere in the big bad world. And it's not forever; in just five years he'll be out in that world complete with friends of all kinds. I've had to revise my assumptions about single-sex schooling and no-one is more surprised than me.