The co-ed vs. single-sex school debate
Single-sex or mixed schools – which is best for my child?
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Will my child’s performance improve in a single-sex school? This is a question many parents ask themselves.

Your friend firmly believes her daughter’s academic performance is thanks to her being at an all-girls’ school where she’s not distracted by the presence of boys.

Your brother says his son has excelled at rugby because he attends an exemplary boys’ school where performance on the sports field is encouraged.

Other parents believe co-ed schools are the best option for their kids because they prepare them for a real world in which they’ll have to mix with the opposite sex.

Experts agree it’s a difficult decision. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer,” says clinical psychologist Cristine Scolari of Bedfordview, Johannesburg.

Some children flourish in single-sex schools, while others perform better in coed schools, Pretoria Boys High School principal Tony Reeler says.

Research doesn’t support the view that children do better in single-sex schools, Cape Town educational psychologist Melissa Bothma says. “Extensive research shows single-sex school don’t offer any social or educational benefits over co-ed schools in the public school system.”

The characteristics of individual schools must also be taken into account, Cape Town educational psychologist Anel Annandale says. “If your child is unhappy in a co-ed school it doesn’t mean you should send them to a single-sex school. Perhaps it’s the specific school that’s the problem.”

Before deciding, it’s worth considering the following pros and cons:

Advantages of single-sex schools

  • “Boys and girls mature at different levels so it’s frustrating if everyone is treated as equally mature,” Scolari says. Single-sex schools make provision for the emotional, physical and intellectual differences between boys and girls. “Girls usually develop faster than boys between ages four and seven,” Annandale confirms. “So teachers can teach schoolwork at a faster pace in girls’ schools.”
  • Learners in single-sex schools experience less peer pressure from the opposite sex, says Deon Scheepers, principal of Grey College in Bloemfontein. “Boys and girls can develop in a safe environment where there’s no pressure from the opposite sex to be someone or become someone you’re not.”
  • There’s usually a greater focus on sport in single-sex schools, especially boys’ schools. “A sporty child develops more self-confidence if he’s given the chance to excel on the sports field, but in some mixed schools where sport isn’t given much attention his self-image can suffer, especially if he’s not academically strong,” Annandale says.
  • Supporters of single-sex school believe children do better in these schools, especially in the case of academically minded girls, Annandale says. Girls in single-sex schools are more inclined to take stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as maths, biology and physical science, she says, while Reeler says learners in boys’ schools often take part in more stereotypically “feminine” activities such as choir, drama and art.
  • In high school teenagers’ attention can be easily distracted by the opposite sex, Scolari says. “They don’t focus on schoolwork but rather on social and relationship issues.

Disadvantages of single-sex schools

  • Girls and boys don’t learn to socialise with one another, Scolari says. This is especially problematic if the child doesn’t mix with children of the opposite sex outside school hours. “These children can feel uncomfortable or shy in the presence of the opposite sex,” she says.
  • It’s easier for boys and girls to become true friends in a mixed school where they see one another just about every day. “Supportive relationships with the opposite sex can lead to a healthy self-image,” Scolari says.
  • Cattiness can be more prevalent in girls’ schools,” Annandale says.
  • Sometimes parents send their children to a single-sex school far away from home, which means they spend the week in hostels. “If they go home for the weekend they’re often deprived of the opportunity to socialise with their school friends,” Annandale says.

Before you decide

Do thorough research about the school you have in mind for your child, Reeler says. “Visit the school with your child.” This will give you a better idea of what type of place it is and if your child will fit in. For example, check if the school’s values are the same as your family’s.

Children should decide jointly with their parents about which high school they want to attend, Annandale says. “You might be keen on a specific school but you should also consider your child’s interests. I’d suggest you visit schools together. Some schools even allow children to attend the school for a week to see if they fit in.

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