Single-Sex Classes

In the 1970s and 1980s many feminists argued that single-sex schooling was an important way of addressing girls’ underachievement in schooling. Now, in many countries, the boys’ ‘underachievement’ debate has brought a focus on using single-sex classes to address boys’ underachievement.

Single-sex classes in co-educational schools

Single-sex classes have been introduced into co-educational schools in numerous countries, including Australia, England, New Zealand, Sweden and the USA. Although a few co-educational schools have implemented single-sex classes throughout the whole school and across all curriculum areas, in most cases they are introduced in specific subject areas, and/or for particular age groups. The purposes of these schemes vary. Sometimes – particularly in 1970s, 80s and 90s – the aim is to increase girls’ confidence in ‘masculine’ subjects such as mathematics or science, with the goal of encouraging them to continue studying these subjects beyond compulsory level. Recently, however, the focus has shifted towards implementing single-sex classes to benefit boys: to boost their performances, particularly in subjects such as English. It’s no coincidence that this shift has coincided with fears about ‘underachieving’ boys.

Are they successful?

Researchers have measured effectiveness according to various criteria, including academic attainment, pupil self-concept levels, continuation of the subject beyond compulsory level, and attitudes towards, and enjoyment of, the subject. Taken as a whole, the findings are inconclusive. Reasons for this include that most studies are short-lived, and in many cases the schools are not clear about the precise purpose of the scheme. Also, schools that are attempting to raise boys’ attainment levels often implement a number of different strategies simultaneously, so it is difficult or impossible to disentangle the effects. In general, the ways in which the schemes are implemented and executed are important determinants of their success, and factors such as how committed all staff and parents are to the project are very important.

There are dangers. For example, there has been sustained criticism of programs that treat girls and boys as homogeneous groups, and that reinforce gender-stereotypes by tailoring the curriculum in gender-specific ways. Similarly, male classroom teachers that encourage male bonding in all-boys’ groups by fostering sexist, macho or ‘laddish’ attitudes and behaviours have been criticised strongly by pro-feminist and feminist researchers.

The picture shows Lisa Simpson passing as a boy to get access to the ‘hard’ mathematics taught in the boys half of the school in Simpsons episode ‘Girls Just Want to Have Sums’.

Useful Links

Single-sex and mixed-sex secondary schooling: research into life course consequences of single-sex schooling carried out by Diana Leonard, Heather Joshi and Alice Sullivan

Single-sex education: What does Research Tell us? A useful summary of existing research findings by Emer Smyth

UK Girls’ School Association

The International Boys’ School Coalition

The Paradox of Single-sex and Co-educational Schooling by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson: A very useful discussion and review of factors to consider when assessing single-sex versus co-ed schooling and contexts.


Single-sex classes in co-educational schools: GEA executive member Carolyn Jackson provides an overview of the key issues

Further Reading

Deem, R. (ed) (1984) Co-education reconsidered. Milton Keynes, Open University Press: This is one of the first edited collections on the issues around co-education and single-sex schooling.

Ivinson, G. and Murphy, P. (2007) Rethinking single sex teaching. Buckingham: Open University Press: This book challenges the assumptions of single-sex classes in co-educational comprehensive schools, presenting insights about the intended and unintended consequences of gender division in schools.

Jackson, C. (2002) Can single-sex classes in co-educational schools enhance the learning experiences of girls and/or boys? An exploration of pupils’ perceptions. British Educational Research Journal, 28, 1, 37-48: This explores the value of introducing single-sex classes within co-educational schools, and in doing so, it draws upon the perspectives of girls and boys involved in one such initiative (in maths).

Warrington, M. and Younger, M. (2001) Single-sex classes and equal opportunities for girls and boys: Perspectives through time from a mixed comprehensive in England. Oxford Review of Education, 27, 3, 339-356: This reviews the arguments for introducing single-sex classes in co-ed schools to improve performance. It focuses on one school where such an approach has underpinned the organisation of the school through three decades.

Younger, M. and Warrington, M. (2006) Would Harry and Hermione Have Done Better in Single-Sex Classes? A Review of Single-Sex Teaching in Coeducational Secondary Schools in the United Kingdom. American Educational Research Journal, 43, 4, 579-620: This reviews the benefits and limitations of single-sex classes in coeducational schools, particularly focusing on the experiences of a number of United Kingdom secondary schools involved in the authors’ 4-year Raising Boys’ Achievement Project.


Page author: Carolyn Jackson

Updated: 15th January 2013

Leave a Reply