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The Dark Side of Single-Sex Grammar Schools

11/08/2016 13:29 | Updated 11 August 2016

Between private and comprehensive schools, grammar schools sit a little uncomfortably, like an awkward and overlooked middle child. But now that Theresa May has given the go-ahead on the creation of new ones, they've been thrust under the spotlight, and the national media seems to have a lot to say about them. I myself attended a grammar school for seven years, and a Catholic all-girls' ex-convent at that, in an area with a particularly high concentration of them.

So, rather than weighing up the principles of them, I decided to find out from friends at several different single-sex grammars (as they predominate in my area) how their single-sex and grammar-school upbringing affected their lived experience.

Emma*, who was head girl of an all-girls' school, said:

"It is only since beginning the coeducational nature of university that I can recognise how, if boys had been [at our school], it would have been far from what it was. It is a sad but true fact that, around the opposite sex, many girls become less inclined to act fully as themselves, too embarrassed to say or do the things they otherwise would, because of the fear of judgment.

In my opinion, had boys shared our classrooms, we would have been without the same passionate drive and controversial debate that so greatly developed our confidence and general knowledge, as we would have been too fixated on looking the best we could and may have hidden from the limelight."

And the statistics seem to back her up. Girls are more likely to take STEM A-levels at single-sex schools, and regularly top academic league tables. But, whilst an all-girls environment clearly suited Emma, they do not suit everyone. Luke attended an all-girls' school for five years but, after coming out as transgender, did not return for sixth form. This is what he had to say about his experience:

"I personally think that single-sex schools can be both a good and bad idea. Many boys and girls feel comfortable attending them: it just depends on the person. However, being part of the LGBT community, I feel that I missed out on a lot of experiences and grew to regret the decision as I progressed.

Being transgender and attending a single-sex school, you feel very trapped by things such as strict uniform rules and I believe it is much harder to express who you are."

Despite the rather immature stereotype that single-sex schools "promote homosexuality", coming out in a single-sex environment can actually be an added difficulty. Luke is not the only person I know who changed schools after Year Eleven due to the difficulties and pressures of coming out.

And, whilst there are certainly benefits to all-girls' education, some studies suggest that those benefits aren't generally replicated in all-boys' environments. Reflecting on his time at an all-boys' school, Michael remembers the "enormous fun" and "close friendships", but also felt that the lack of girls had its downsides.

"I feel that the absence of females in much of the formative period of our life fostered some attitudes that were harmful and even, in some cases, toxic, creating a feeling of female alterity that distanced girls from us even in personal meetings.

I believe that it poisoned many boys' attitudes towards gender issues and towards feminism and feminists. Having female friends in the early years of secondary school might have helped us better to understand gender issues.

The masculine ethos of the school was always evident and could sometimes put pressure on those who didn't conform. It was never adequately explained to me why wrestling each other to the ground was a vital element of rugby training and when I felt homesick on a Year 7 school trip no-one knew how to deal with me."

Michael also felt in later years that "there was no help forthcoming" when he experienced feelings of depression, something which many young men experience as expressing emotion is stigmatised in masculine environments. And, although this may not have been caused by single-sex schooling, it was at least exaggerated by it.

There are clear pros and cons, therefore, to single-sex education: but what difference does grammar schooling make? One person who knows better than most is Katie, who transferred to a single-sex grammar for sixth form after having attended a comprehensive school. She said that:

"In a grammar school, intelligence is something to be proud of, although the teachers would look down on you if you didn't achieve what was expected.

Coming from a comprehensive, I felt that some teachers acted differently towards me and others who made the move, which made us feel that we weren't as intelligent as the original grammar students. In the comprehensive school I went to, high achievers were acknowledged but not necessarily celebrated so I was praised for getting As but not pushed towards A*s.

The existence of grammar schools creates much more of a stigma towards comprehensive schools and a snobbish attitude towards grammars. I think there has to be an opposite single-sex school or mixed school nearby for students to interact with to help prepare them for university and life in general. I do think grammars can be beneficial for individuals, but I'm glad I went to one when I was older as I don't think I would have performed as well there when I was younger."

I think what we can conclude from these snapshots of opinion is that, although single-sex grammar schooling is well-suited to many, its selective nature means that if you don't completely feel that you fit in at any stage, that is only likely to be exaggerated. In my own experience, I found that being in a Catholic environment made expressing my views as an atheist more difficult -- especially as R.E. was compulsory for all seven years and I once had a teacher announce that "Jesus loves you, Joanna" in front of an entire class.

Sex education was woeful (I had to be told by an external source that natural family planning actually generally doesn't work) and I also found my school to be uncomfortably white-washed. Moreover, whilst I'm thankful in many ways for having been to an all-girls' school, I found that gender stereotypes were normalised and exaggerated, whether it be bitching, rumour-making and obsession with appearance in girls or bullying and lad culture in boys.

Aside from these factors, however, it is ultimately your own experiences -- your friends, teachers and progress -- which determine whether or not you enjoy your school years. It is possible to have a wonderful time at a single-sex grammar, which I myself very much felt in sixth form, but if our long-term goal is to be the celebration of diversity and difference, especially at such a tender age of socialisation, then it's worth noting that they're far from perfect.

*All names have been changed.

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