Friday, September 11, 2009

Girls and boys

So the latest study of adolescent behaviour, purporting to show that girls from single-sex schools are more competitive and less risk averse than their counterparts attending co-ed schools, will no doubt fuel a new wave of tongue-lashing on mumsnet and bouts of private angst among the rest, anxious that their teenage daughters are not flinging themselves into every adventure playground with gusto.

Today’s research by Alison Booth and Patrick Nolen of the University of Essex took 260 girls and boys, with the average age of 15, from eight state schools in Essex and Suffolk and split them into 65 random groups of four.

Four of the schools were single sex, including grammar schools.

Although the boys and girls at grammar schools often had university-educated parents and were likely to be influenced by ability as well as by the choices of their parents and teachers, the researchers tried to balance out any differences by picking the brightest from the other co-ed schools.

The study, which focused on students being asked to solve as many mazes as possible in five minutes, involving a gamble on winning more money if choosing one option over another, found that that the school environment made no difference to boys.

Girls from single-sex schools were on the other hand much more likely to take risks.

However after half an hour of being in a single-sex group, girls from co-ed schools were also liable to become much more confident and competitive than before.

The result, said the authors, showed that women are no less risk averse when they band together, but are liable to be more cowed when in the company of boys.

As such, they say, it might explain why women lag behind men in competing for higher pay and promotions.

So women are competitive and risk-takers, they simply cannot face competing with men.

Professors Booth and Dr Nolen conclude that being in a co-ed environment may force women in particular to conform to gender stereotypes, whereas in single-sex schools they are not burdened by such pressures and will be as great risk-takers as boys.

The results will be trumpeted, no doubt, by the Girls School Association and other proponents of single-sex schooling.

For years, they have argued that girls in single-sex schools are more likely to study the sciences than those in co-ed schools and that single-sex schooling allows girls in particular to develop at their own pace, without worrying about how they might appear to the opposite sex.

However, the authors insist that they are not urging all parents to enrol their daughters at once into single-sex schools.

And how could they?

The number of single-sex state schools in England has dropped from 2,500 in the 1960s to around 400 today.

In the independent sector, ever fewer parents can afford to send their children to single sex schools in these recession hit days and many are being forced to merge, turn co-ed or close.

So what’s the answer?

Parallel education, is one suggestion favoured by the Australian educational psychologist, Steve Biddulph, where co-ed schools adopt single-sex classes, particularly for teenagers.

In 2005 studies by academics at Cambridge found that schools who did adopt this approach saw grades rise rapidly and both boys and girls become more confident.

But will that really equalise the pay gap between men and women?

Probably not.

Easy as it might sound, there is the small issue of women having children, going on maternity leave and inadequate childcare arrangements meaning that few can or even want to do more than part-time work.

Also frankly, why should women have to compete like men all the time?

Surely that will only give rise to more fights breaking out over who controls the TV or CD player, which is thankfully still a uniquely male reserve.


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