First of all, full disclosure, there's no way I can get through this without using the words toxic masculinity and social construct. I may get away with alluding to, but not mentioning, the patriarchy. I think an inclusive and persuasive argument avoids the use of highly charged political words but on this topic I really can't find a way around using them. So now that we have established the ground rules, and now that you know that I'm going to shoe in some pretty 'rabid' feminist terms, lets get on with the argument.
Offering to educate to a proportion of the population based on their sex or gender is like starting a school for blondes, or short people, or vegetarians. I'm not sure where to take the height analogy so let's take the vegetarian one further. What if you're pescatarian? What if you are mostly vegetarian but eat red meat twice a year when you're at your granny's? Do you not get to go to this school? What if your parents made you vegetarian but you don't really want to be? Or the hair colour analogy: what if you were blonde as a baby but seem to be turning brunette in adolescence, what if you have dark roots, what if your blonde comes out of a bottle? The examples are ridiculous, I know, but are they any more ridiculous than grouping our children into educational establishments by sex? Our sex is assigned at birth by a quick presumptuous glance at our genitalia, our gender subsequently assumed, and a lifetime of expectations is heaped on us by nothing more than that. Why use that one (often over-simplified) variable as the deciding factor on who best to educate your kids alongside?
Advocates of single sex schools will tell you that girls perform better when educated separately, there are references to learning styles, distractions, and higher levels of engagement in STEM subjects. Undoubtedly, if this were the case it would be a risk to take this opportunity for academic advantage away from young women, but scratch a little deeper and all is not as it seems. When you compare girls in single sex schools to the general female population they do perform better in STEM subjects, but compare them to girls at other leading co-ed schools that also select the most able pupils and there really is no difference.
The problem with the 'girls do better' line of reasoning is that it is based on two false assumptions: a) that it is toxic masculinity which is distracting and disruptive and bringing the girls down (we've just established that it isn't - they're doing fine in the company of boys) and b) that this toxic masculinity is an inherently male biological trait that can never be remedied, rather than a social construct that is damaging to the emotional wellbeing of both women and men.
Surely by educating children separately we are doing nothing to address this second assumption. We aren't challenging prevailing discourses on gender essentialism; we are reinforcing them. We're telling our children that gender is a yin yang thing, you're a this or you're a that and whatever you are, you are not the other. In terms of addressing gender inequality, sending your child to a single sex school is like treating a fever with paracetamol. It will temporarily mask the symptoms, but it will never fight the infection.
Actually I've got another confession to make, I think dividing children up by any characteristic that they don't get to choose is wrong. Class, religion, and academic ability are another three of my bugbears. What hope do we have for a cohesive, inclusive, and progressive society if we start out telling our children that they are not like everyone else, and by making them spend most of their waking moments in the company of only those we have deemed the same? Surely tolerance and acceptance of all kinds of diversity only comes from being in the mix.
Having said all that, I am not naive to the limitations of our education system as it is, the tough choices parents have to make, and the fact that for some people principles are hard to balance against the misery of a sinking or marginalised child. I understand that sometimes choosing a path that doesn't marry with your politics is the only option when your kid's wellbeing is at stake. I can't promise I wouldn't or won't make those choices too. What I am asking is simply that we acknowledge what a better system would look like and then work towards making it happen.