Closures and amalgamations of secondary schools, now under way in many areas, will not just mean worsening standards. A higher proportion of children will go to church schools and single sex schools. In one London borough alone, Hackney, well over half of all pupils will be in single sex schools. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Chanie Rosenberg, a Hackney teacher, gives her views.
Even though the other side of girls’ schools is boys’ schools, there is a different attitude to each. Girls’ schools are heavily subscribed to. Parents’ attitudes tend to include the belief that there is less violence and roughness and a generally quieter atmosphere and there is no male diversion from the girls’ studies. The result of these two factors is a more studious atmosphere, and the schools are considered ‘good’ schools.
Many women teachers, including some who consider themselves feminists, see advantages in girls’ schools in many spheres. Subjects like maths and sciences, which are avoided by girls in co-ed schools, are encouraged and indeed taken up more confidently by more girls; in extracurricular activities more girls get more ‘leadership’ and related experience; women staff get a better chance to fill ‘top’ posts and serve as ‘successful’ examples to the girls.
Among girls, too, the single sex girls’ school has its adherents. The shy prefer it for the first two reasons that their parents do. The unshy notice a greater confidence gained, probably, through inability to play up to the boys in a stereotyped – and inferior – sex role.
If these presumed benefits are entirely the results of girls belonging to the ‘oppressed’ sex, it follows that boys’ schools must suffer from as many disadvantages. The male dominance of the outside world is strongly reinforced inside the school, through authority being unquestionably male, with the minority of women teachers largely at the bottom end of the power pyramid. Much of the authority is of the strong arm type, whose ultimate sanction is the cane – still widely used in boys’ schools, but not in girls’.
This sort of authority encourages aggressive and violent behaviour which is then usually punished in like ways. Sexism is the natural attitude of the boys. Verbal abuse – sexist and otherwise – of the women teachers is widespread, and fantasised sexual assaults of girl ‘friends’ are very common, widely illustrated in discussions, drawings and jokes.
It is not that teachers wish it so. Some go out of their way to try and educate the boys to a more sensitive understanding of sex. It is the single sex institution in a male dominated world which overrides their efforts.
My own attitude is against single sex schools, even though I understand and sympathise with the rationale behind the popularity of the girls’ school. I think it is unnatural to sharply separate the sexes at 11, putting work and social life into separate compartments. This has no observable effects on the work (at least for boys) but retards social life for the youngsters, directing it into ‘boy crazy’ and ‘girl crazy’ channels with their attendant ills. For boys, single sex schools have no redeeming features. In addition single sex schools discriminate against their pupils in lacking facilities for skills other than those traditionally stereotyped as male or female.
To counteract undesirable tendencies in boys’ schools, women’s groups have been set up in some. We have such a group in my school. After some initial raillery when we marched out to our lunchtime meetings we are now well established, with many of the male staff encouraging our efforts. We discussed the difficulties of women in a boys’ school. Collectively we sought solutions to the problems within the strictures of the single sex set up which we came out against. To help the male staff understand our situation, we gave them a version of our discussion.
To try to broaden the boys’ education, we drew up proposals for a new subject for the curriculum called ‘Skills for Living’ which covers those skills of homemaking and social living traditionally separated into women’s and men’s work.
We should not relegate this problem to oblivion but seek to change it. Out of the evils of the cuts perhaps we can pluck this reform.
This article is adapted from one which appears in Hackney Teachers Association Newsletter earlier this year.
Issue 57 pp.18