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Why the co-ed vs single-sex debate may have limited shelf life

NBH Senior School headteachers on their firm belief in co-education

Single-sex schooling versus co-education: a sensitive and recurring debate, particularly in the independent sector where gender separation rises to 35% between the senior years 7 to 11*. Even with the general decline seen in single-sex fee-paying schools, those topping the academic league tables still tend to be segregated girls’ schools and boys’ schools – at least up until Sixth Form. The North Bridge House Schools group however, contests that the co-ed versus single-sex debate may have limited shelf life.

Headteachers of our successful co-ed North Bridge House Senior Schools, Brendan Pavey and Jonathan Taylor maintain that in every aspect of school life, their students are prepared for a world that is representative of the one they will enter as an adult. Critical in this preparation is students’ ability to treat everyone as an individual – an education the two Heads feel is more effective in a mixed-sex setting, despite claims that single-sex environments can see higher academic results.

“I recommend reading The Paradox of Single-Sex and Co-Educational Schooling by Professors Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson,” says Jonathan Taylor, Headteacher of North Bridge House Senior & Sixth Form Canonbury and Collegiate Head of the North Bridge House group.

“Despite being over 10 years old, the comprehensive research base and even handed analysis of the issue unpick many of the flimsy myths that perpetuate on this delicate topic.”

The report concludes that ‘While there are some very good girls’ schools and boys’ schools, it does not look as though they are good because they are single-sex’ – something that especially resonates with the two North London headteachers, who find their mixed-ability schools amongst long-established, single-sex yet highly selective competitors.

At North Bridge House, girls and boys mix in a relaxed setting, both inside and outside of the classroom. Children are treated as individuals, and the focus is not on separating the genders but on educating them. Part of that education is helping them to better interact with and appreciate the opposite sex. As such, the Year 7 boys attend a ‘Better Men’ workshop, which teaches boys about the importance of gender equality, whilst the girls benefit from confidence and self-belief workshops.

Our Senior Schools have also commissioned the popular duo, Allison Havey and Deanna Puccio, known as the RAP project, to work with not only students but staff and parents too, helping them to better navigate the complex world of social media, sexting and body image that confines teenagers today.

North Bridge House student leadership roles, including heads of house and form captains, are awarded to male and female counterparts so that for every male role, there is a female equal and vice versa. Head Boy and Head Girl bridge the gap between students and teachers, representing the views of all pupils and exercise their diplomatic skills in a setting that is reflective of their future workplace.

Brendan Pavey, Headteacher of North Bridge House Senior Hampstead says:

“It is impossible to imagine our graduates going out into a world that has previously accepted the truly misogynistic working environments that we hear about in the press today. I am confident that they would stand up for their rights, both girls and boys, blind to some of the prejudices that have plagued our society over recent decades.”

Focused on maximising academic success through understanding the significantly changing teenage brain, NBH Senior Canonbury Head Jonathan Taylor continues:

“In my various roles at schools ranging from a super high achieving international to a secondary modern in Buckinghamshire, I have never once reached the conclusion that student outcomes might improve if I were to divide the genders I taught. True, I have known girls who much prefer working with other girls and appear to have little tolerance of boisterous and over confident boys, yet the opposite also holds. I have educated many girls who not only prefer the company of boys but seem to thrive when working with them.”

There exists a wide range of factors which contribute to establishing the overall effectiveness of a school: a clear vision, outstanding teachers, a broad and stretching curriculum are all certainly important contributors, however, the chromosome composition of the student cohort remains to be proven.

“We have already seen a large number of all-boys schools firstly create co-ed sixth forms and later change to be co-ed throughout,” says Brendan. “Indeed, the first school I worked at did exactly that and seeing the school transition from all-boys to co-ed was fascinating. 20 years later that school is a thriving, forward-thinking institution, which would balk at the thought of having only one gender present.”

The two sister senior school Heads, each with over 20 years’ experience working in a broad range of educational environments, observe the greatest benefits of co-ed schooling in the general, everyday mixed environment. It is an overall experience as opposed to a setup that provides some key advantages, they believe.

The schools’ academic, pastoral and extra-curricular provisions collectively thrive on boys and girls working together. From sharing opinions on many topical issues in subjects ranging from History to PSHE – learning to appreciate individual views, not simply stereotypical girls’ or boys’ views – to embarking on adventures and outreach projects as far as Malawi, students break down any potential barriers that might otherwise exist between the sexes and become confidently familiar with the social norm.

“From a girl’s point of view, the school has always felt balanced and equal. Girls and boys truly support one another and get along, contrary to what some girls may worry about when applying to a co-ed school. I also find that being in a co-ed and multi-cultural school allows you to learn many social skills for the future. We are a very accepting school that treats everyone equally which I believe is the foundation for a positive environment,” says NBH Senior Head Girl, Francesca.

“Only in a mixed school environment, that treats everyone as an individual, with equal rights, will children be truly prepared and confident to work with people from all backgrounds, no matter what colour, creed or gender. A co-education environment, quite simply, is the best place to prepare young people for the world of tomorrow,” concludes Brendan, the NBH Hampstead Head.


*ISC Census and Annual Report 2017 https://www.isc.co.uk/media/4069/isc-census-2017-final.pdf 

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