National Post

Tuesday, January 05, 1999

A place of their own
The argument for single-gender schools for boys

Linda Frum
National Post


John Lehmann, National Post / Blakey (centre) surrounded by Upper Canada College students (left to right) Ravi Jain, Steven Mungovan, Thobey Campion, Thomas Kalvik, and Chris Buckle.

It's been understood that in a learning environment, it is oppressive for girls to be around boys. Is it oppressive for boys to be around girls?

Absolutely. From a self-esteem standpoint, no boy wants to be in a class where a girl is more linguistically strong, much more articulate, better read, reads better. Boys don't like it when they can't compete well.

We always assume that young boys are self-assured. But now the thinking is that it is boys who are suffering.

Boys are equally fragile. They need proper nurturing and care, same as girls do.

The fear is that an all-boy environment brings out the worst in boys. It brings out their brutal side.

Sure. And that can happen. If you don't educate boys around it, it can become Lord of the Flies. Upper Canada has a strong athletic program. We are known for it. We're not as well known but are equally strong in the fine arts, theatre, and music. Participation in these things among boys is much higher at a single-sex school than at a co-ed school. Because it's acceptable. It's not uncool. We have a 55-boy choir in the upper school alone.

Who would have thought that the advantage of a boys' school is that boys can be free to find their feminine side?

I know, but it's true.

What about the socializing effect of girls? Boys want to impress girls so they tame their brute instincts. Take that away and they are free to compete like hell with each other.

I just don't see that happening. At a good school you have to be aware of the Lord of the Flies potential. If you are aware of that, you deal with it, counteract it.

Don't children who spend their entire school career in a single-sex environment end up viewing the opposite sex as alien and bizarre?

The view of the opposite sex tends to be much more positive at single-sex schools than co-ed schools. At co-ed schools there's much more pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. Girls spend hours putting on makeup and caring about fashion. Boys play football, act macho, and beat people up. Whereas at a boys' school, if you are in the choir, or the theatre, or the football team, that's just who you are. And you assume girls are the same. It's not as if the boys never have to be with girls or women, but we provide them with a time when they don't have to be.

If a single-gender education is so superior, why aren't male institutions braver about being what they are?

That's a very good point. About eight years ago I got involved with a group of heads of boys' schools. And we were feeling very vulnerable that we were a dying breed. And we talked a lot about being prouder of what we are. What came out of that meeting was that we should do what the girls' schools have done and initiate our own research about how best to educate boys.

How do you teach boys differently?

In languages it's a question of selecting materials that are more appealing to boys. In England they set up a study with middle- school-aged boys. They gave them a curriculum that was more interesting to boys, things like the Odyssey, Macbeth . . .

Stories with lots of death.

And war. And there was a dramatic improvement in boys' reading and writing. It was attributed to the curriculum and the fact that the boys were not competing with girls who were more mature and more naturally able. Girls tend to be more diligent. They're more willing to take direction. Young boys get up and move around. They're also two years to 18 months less mature. That difference stays with kids through to high school. If you have that difference -- a two-year gap throughout -- that presents a significant challenge for the teacher. Where do you pitch the class?

Should public schools think about creating single-sex classes?

In Canada there's a political equity agenda -- you have to have boys and girls together because that's the way the world is.

Feminists would fear that separation would mean that the boys are favoured. They'd get more. But what's funny is that you're trying to create an environment where boys can keep up.

It's interesting. Among the statistics that I've seen consistently from the U.K. are the league tables where schools are rated for academic achievement. For five years straight, 48 of the top 50 schools have been single-sex schools. Almost evenly distributed between boys' and girls' schools. It's a pretty dramatic demonstration of the value of single-gender education.

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