Girls' schools are popular (again)

Elisabeth Braw wrote this story for and the Huffington Post.

At Convent of the Sacred Heart School in San Francisco, the students excel in math. They're athletic. The younger ones play with Legos. And they're all girls.

"You can set up everything right in a co-ed school, but the boys will still dominate the classroom discussion", observes Anne Wachter, Convent's principal. "In a girls' school there's no intimidation, and the girls are very active in class. Girls' schools empower women."

Girls' schools are no longer relics of the past. "In the U.S. there is a resurgence of single-sex schools", says Linda Sax, a professor of education at UCLA. "Parents feel that co-ed schools do injustice to girls." Girls' education is a hot topic in the developing world as well. Two years ago Oprah Winfrey opened a school for poor South African girls. But 100 million children worldwide don't attend school regularly; most are girls. The UN's goal is to give all children access to schooling by 2015. "When girls are given an opportunity to compete with boys they do well", observes Cheryl Gregory Faye, Head of the Secretariat of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative. "But the reality on the ground is that there are practical advantages to girls' schools".

That's why families flock to Wynberg Girls' School in Cape Town. "South Africa has become more violent, verbally and physically, and our young women in the townships are often abused in this way", says Principal Shirley Harding. "The girls' school environment gives them the safe environment to concentrate on the academic and social skills necessary to succeed in life." For similar reasons, the Kenyan government has introduced girls' boarding schools. Building two sets of schools is expensive, so Zambia is experimenting with separate math and science classes for boys and girls.

Still, girls are an excellent investment. "Their education is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing poverty and helping countries advance", notes Cheryl Gregory Faye.


In most European countries single-sex education gets minimal attention. But things are changing. "Different European countries are experiencing problems with co-ed schools. Girls grow up faster than boys, so they succeed in school, while boys are failing", says Jose-Maria Barnils, President of the European Association for Single-Sex Education (EASSE). "Single-sex schools are becoming an option. They're not a solution for every case, but they can help in some situations."

According to a recent EASSE survey, France has 240 single-sex schools, Spain has nearly 170, Germany has 130, and Poland has nearly 50.

There are approximately 210,000 single-sex schools around the world.

Since public single-sex schools became legal in the U.S. two years ago, the number of such schools has mushroomed. 442 public schools now have single-sex education, up from 11 in 2002.

Today 776 million adults, 16% of the world's population, are illiterate. Two thirds of them are women.

Sources: National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, UNESCO

Girls' schools -- the arguments:

Why I like girls' schools: Meg Moulton, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls' Schools

1. Girls' schools create a culture of achievement in which a girl's academic progress is of central importance. Girls' schools capitalize on all that we know about the way girls learn. Students are more likely to persist and excel in subjects such as math, science, and technology - subjects often tagged with the male stereotype.

2. Girls take center stage. All the speakers, players, writers, singers and athletes are girls. All the doers and leaders are girls. Female mentors abound. Competing with boys is not the point. Girls' schools see their graduates standing side-by-side with men of achievement.

3. Girls step up to challenges and learn to lead and succeed in today's world. Self-confidence is key to turning skills and knowledge into success. Since leadership is an acquired skill, girls' schools continually create new leadership opportunities.

Why I'm opposed to girls' schools: Barrie Thorne, Professor of sociology and women's studies, University of California, Berkeley

1. We live in a mixed-gender, and mixed-ethnic, world, and cooperative and harmonious relations are best nurtured through daily interaction in mixed-gender, mixed-ethnic contexts.

2. If one carefully examines the research evidence, as I have done, it does NOT substantiate the claim that girls, and boys, do better in learning and in growing to become caring human beings in single-sex environments. Individual variation far outweighs group differences.

3. Public and private resources are best focused on improving mixed-gender, mixed-ethnic educational environments, not in promoting social divisions.