The Missing Link in the Education of Our Boys

The Missing Link in the Education of Our Boys

By Hwaa Irfan

It has become generally accepted that the education of boys and girls in a mixed environment is far superior to single-sex education. With the 1994 European Community resolution ending single sex schools on the basis of sex discrimination, further moves by the European Union towards standardizing the curriculum of schools throughout Europe have been taking more entrenched steps to make this the norm through sex education despite long term research projects in the U.K. providing strong evidence towards a negative impact on boys academically. The reasons for this general acceptance may have more to do with the focus on gender equity when it comes to girls academically speaking, negating the socio-psychological implications on both genders, and that boys have needs to.

The U.S., has seen a renaissance in single sex education. Since 2004, 445 single-sex classes, and 95 single sex public schools have sprung up across the U.S in response to a change in federal law. One of those schools, the Public School in New York, returned to single sex education in 2009, in response to falling grades and increasing behavioral problems. Attending that school, Samuel Little’s son, Gavin is in his second year of single sex education at Public School. Little told New York Times:

    “Before it was all about showing the girls who was toughest, and roughing and being cool”
    “Now I never hear a word from teachers about behavioral problems, and when he talks about school, he actually talking about work”.

One satisfied parent and son who have done what they have considered best for them despite coeducation being the main mode of education in the U.S. today. Coeducationalists continue to argue against single sex schools, often falling on the belief that single sex schools reinforces stereotypes. Certain things can be taken for granted, as long as the key element desired is in place. Advocates against single-sex education usually measure success of coeducation in the measureable terms of grades, losing oversight of the overall repercussions in the long term.

The coeducation movement began in 1890, when the call for mixed education was based on social reasons rather than academic ones. Brehony in his Coeducation: Perspectives and Debates in the Early Twentieth Century” argued that “… no record of cognitive outcome was ever presented”, and Carol Dyhouse in her “No Distinction of Sex? Women as British Universities 1870-1939 found that coeducation was for the benefit of boys not girls, out fear of homosexuality occurring in boys’ only schools. Dyhouse was referring to the resolutions of the Association of Headmistresses in 1905. That move was essentially a financial one, due to the difficulties of procuring endowments for girls/women’s education. The changes in the U.S. were at the forefront of this movement, influencing the move towards coeducation in the U.K via the Bryce Commission at a time when resources (qualified female teachers, and financial support) were limited for girls’ only schools.

The reasons for seeking coeducation at the turn of the 19th century, were simple ones, but the consequences were a little more complicated. Boys do behave differently under certain situations, and so do girls, but because of certain social movements, we are supposed to not acknowledge the truth of our lives. We consider children as products of our minds, neglecting their souls. We assume that through the narrow secular meaning of the word “education” that future generations will be less predisposed to acts of nature. To demonstrate, is the study from the University of Alabama, U.S. by Barton and Cohen “Classroom Gender Composition and Peer Relations”. There were 46 boys (5th and 6th graders) and 47 girls who had attended single sex schools in a study, along with 45 students who had attended coed. It was found that:

    • Mutual friendships had improved for boys on changing to single sex classrooms
    • Aggressive behavior (both overt aggression and relational aggression) had increased for girls on moving to single sex classrooms
    • Victimization behavior increased for girls and not for boys on moving to single sex classrooms
    In the follow-up after first year transition into single sex classes, it was found that:
    • Boys continued to show an increase in establishing mutual friendships, but also overt aggression began to increase.
    • Negative behavior in girls’ classes increased within the 5th grade, but began to tail off in the 6 grade along with victimization.

It has been found that boys tend to lean towards overt aggression, which is more demonstrative and physical, whereas girls demonstrate a relational aggression which is based on the manipulation, intimidation, victimization of relations, and rejection. It is interesting to note that girls exhibited both overt and relational aggression after separating from coed classes, but tailed off what is considered “boys” behavior, and increased on what is considered “girls” behavior within single sex schools. Whereas for boys they were more likely to have peers amongst their own gender the longer they remained in single-sex classes.

This clearly demonstrates the effect of one gender upon the other, and vice versa. Transference is a psychological term that everyone is prone to. We are bound to transfer behaviors and feelings when in the presence of others. The cost of such exercise is prolific in our schools today in the form of school violence, and teenage pregnancies.

Impact on Boys

Concerns were raised as to the benefits of coeducation on male self concept as early as the first decade of 20th century. The concerns arose out of the fact that mixed schools had a larger female population than boys. Members of the British Mosely Education Commission (1903), compared American boys with English boys because coeducation in the U.K. was still in its infancy. Member of the Commission, C.J. Hamilton felt that coeducation “… no doubt softens the manners (some would say to the point of effeminacy) of the boy”. There was also concern that:

    “The great preponderance of women teachers threatens the virility of the nations”.

The above might seem irrational, but even today one American headmaster based on his observations had the following to say in the report “Give Boys Their Space”:

    “[When we switched to single-sex classrooms] the guys really came together. They worked, their guards came down, they revealed the really caring side of themselves. Once we removed the girls from the equation, all of this “I’m this big tough guy” stuff just completely disappeared. One time we had a coed lunch, and it was a disaster. We had guys talking loud, and girls acting sassy”

This confirms what members of the Bryce and Mosely Commission at the turn of the 20th century had expressed, and confirms the result from the Barton and Cohen study whereby the boys after transferring to single-sex classes had more mutual friends.

From an in-depth study “The Effects of Schooling on Gender Differences” in Hong Kong there were additional considerations to their findings. The cultural backdrop played a major role as Hong Kong is a traditional male oriented society that had been subject to the implementation of a Western education system, along with a single-sex education system that has a male (physical sciences, and Math) oriented and female (Arts and Social Sciences) oriented curriculum. Carried out over a period of years, with investigation of 45,000 secondary school students in Hong Kong, the authors Kam-cheung Wong, Raymond Lam, and Lai-ming Ho found that:

    “…while boys performed better on average in SSPA (Single Sex Placement Allocations) when entering secondary schools in Hong Kong, five years later, the situation was reverse. Girls out performed in almost all subjects [coed]. The findings coincide with the results observed from studies in United Kingdom and Australia that girls did better than boys in all areas of the high school curriculum…”

The authors suggested, which is affirmed elsewhere that girls perform better than boys in coed. It is believed that the reason for this is that girls respond better to the systemized method of schooling, school work, and seeking advice from classmates and friends, however girls still did better in single-sex schools.
Bear in mind that this is reference to schooling (factory education) in general, as there are other factors that affect the success or lack thereof including the quality of teachers, the social background of the pupils, and the resources that are made available. The academic success of coeducation cannot be denied, as the resources offered to it allowed for girls to be educated like boys. Later one will find that although there are still some subjects like math and the physical sciences which are still male dominated, and the Arts, which is female dominated, within coed, which does not follow through in single-sex education, particularly for boys.

    The State of Education for Boys Today

The American Academy for Educational Development in their 2005 “A Report in the Growing Crisis in Boys’ Education” found that:

    • Boys were more likely to be referred to a school psychologist
    • Boys represented 70% of the students with learning disabilities
    • Boys represented 80% of the students with social and emotional disabilities
    • Boys (particularly minorities) represented 70% of school suspensions
    • Boys were behind 80% of the school violence, and were the main victims

The hype some feminists and pro-coeducationalists do cry. Clearly the research has centered on U.K., Germany, Belgium, the U.S, Sweden, and Australia that may have peculiarities pertaining to their system of coeducation, and given that adolescence is a cultural paradigm that is heightened or abated by the cultural context in which one lives, the facts bear out further. Additionally, some of the concerns would not have received much attention if boys did well academically, but did not so well on a personal level.

At a conference of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition that took place in the U.K. in 2010, a report was presented to headmasters of both private and state schools. In favor of boys schools, the findings were as follows:

    • Boys in single sex schools were more likely to do cultural and artistic activities, which develops their emotional side, because they did not feel obliged to “perform” to stereotypes that called on them to “behave like a man”
    • Boys in single sex schools were more likely to express their emotions
    • That despite the stereotypes, boys are more emotional than girls
    • Boys performed badly in mixed schools because they are demoralized by their female counterparts when it comes to verbal and reading skills, because the left side of the brain develops faster in girls
    • Boys felt the need to be “cool” rather than studious in mixed schooling
    • That the British education system has become too focused on girls education
    • Boys learn best through touch, and hands-on experience, as they are more spatial, more impulsive, and more physical, so they need to walk around without being made to feel disruptive
    • “In the present sexualized atmosphere prevalent in mixed schools, boys feel coerced into acting like men before they understand themselves well enough to know what that means”

The 4-year project “Raising Boys Achievement” undertaken by the reputable University of Cambridge, U.K looking into the forces that undermine boys’ education took place in the U.K., from 2000 – 2004. Over 50 primary, secondary and special schools were explored for the following reasons as stated in the report:

    “Rather more boys than girls fail to achieve level 4 in English national tests at the end of key stage 2; rather more boys than girls fail to achieve the 5A*-C benchmark grades in GCSE examinations taken at 16+. These patterns of academic achievement are evident in most schools in England”

The report rested firmly on the academic issues that have led to a gender gap, and how schools can overcome them through various teaching and classroom strategies, including mentoring. However, to consciously know what one is doing to eradicate a problem one has to understand all the dynamics at play, and in this situation that is the admittance, and applicable knowledge that how boys learn, and how girls learn differ, and what girls need, and what boys need differ too without falling into preconceived stereotypes which are void of the laws of nature! This means an evaluation on not only the school ethos, curriculum etc., but also on the maturity of the type and age of the teachers employed, and whether they are employed to do admin work (which has forced so many good teachers to leave), or to whether they are employed to teach.

However, back to the report “Raising Boys Achievement” the authors commented on the advantages of single sex schools as perceived by the teachers:

    • “ The opportunity to use a variety of teaching strategies which were targeted to boys’ needs and interests”

    • “Provision of a context in which teachers could challenge boys’ stereotypes more effectively”

    • “The existence of an all-male environment which was more conducive to learning, with fewer distractions and less embarrassment, enabling boys to be more open and responsive in class, and able to concentrate and participate more”.

In the projects review of single sex education the researchers felt to do what many liberalists do as in the case of standardizing sex education, and that is to ask the opinion of those who wish to feel comfortable with their lower desires – in this case the students. Of course the students themselves would say that learning in a mixed environment is good for them, and so they did. However, there was a leaning towards learning in a single-sex setting.

    Boys felt:

• “My hormones are not dancing to the beat of the night!’

• “It gives you a lot more confidence to answer questions in class because there is not so much pressure and embarrassment if you are wrong as there would be with girls about”.

    Girls felt:

• “You don’t need to act as though you’re really cool, especially when you’re not
feeling as though you are!”

• “You feel braver and less embarrassed in offering answers, because there are no boys to make fun of you when you are wrong”.

As one headmaster to an American school pleaded in “Give Boys Their Space”

    “When we switched to single-sex classrooms, the guys really came together. They worked, their guards came down, they revealed the really caring and nurturing side of themselves. Once we removed the girls from the equation, all of this, “I’m this big tough guy” stuff just completely disappeared. One time we had a coed lunch, and it was a disaster. We had guys talking loud and girls being extra sassy”.


It has to be noted that the above is a reflection of “factory education”/schooling, and cannot be said to represent all forms of mixed education today. The problem is though, a growing percentage of the global population is being force-fed through this system of education, which we all take to be quite normal, when the above studies only represent a small percentage of the studies researched for this article, which echo the same results. These studies not only reflect on the education of boys, but on the conduct of females in the presence of males. Boys today will be the colleagues, co-workers, husbands, fathers, and heads of family, organizations, and societies of tomorrow; and if they are hindered from going through their natural stages of development, then society as a whole will suffer. How many women complain about their men, and how many young male Muslims complain about the lack of male role models?

Islam advises a certain code of conduct between men and women in our daily lives, but it is to our own downfall if we allow ourselves to believe as those who defame Islam want us to believe, that Islam is “out of date”. It is far from out of date, but is always “in date” with the actual needs of the human heart, soul and mind as long as we “update” our knowledge of Islam.

If anything is to be learned, by the societies in which we live, it is and has been to ensure fair treatment and allocation of resources to both girls and boys, both men, and women, and both child and adult regardless of status, and ethnicity with generations in mind. We can no longer afford to neglect the needs of any member of society, and we must reflect on our role in that neglect.


Albisetti, J. “Un-Learned Lessons from the New World? English Views of American Coeducation and Women Colleges c. 1865 – 1910” History of Education, 2000. Vol. 29: 5 p473 – 489. History Department, University of Kentucky.

Barton, B.K. & Cohen. R. “Classroom Gender Composition and Children’s Peer Relations.” Child Study Journal. Vol. 34: 1. 2004. Department of Psychology. University of Alabama.

Froschl, M & Sprung, B “Raising and Educating Healthy Boys: A Report on the Growing Crisis in Boy’s Education” Academy for Educational Development.

Medina, J. “Boys and Girls Together, Taught Separately in School” New York Times.

Smith, I. D. “Gender Differentiation: Gender Differences in Academic Achievement and Self Concept in Coeducational and Single-Sexed Schools”. Australian Research Council. Institutional Grants Scheme.
Williams, R. Single-Sex Schools Help Boys to Enjoy Arts, Study Says.

Wong, K. et al “The Effects of Schooling on Gender Differences” University of Hong Kong. 1997.
Younger, W. et al. Raising Boys Achievement. Department for Education and Science.

3 thoughts on “The Missing Link in the Education of Our Boys

  1. Id say Children in general are sadly neglected beyond belief in the education system, in different ways for boys and girls.

    • Sadly Alex, the whole concept of childhood is neglected. We forget what it is to be a child, and we even eradicate childish needs in ourselves. All of us have been “processed” through the same system, and it is only the way our parents have raised us that makes any difference for good or for bad. Yet we who have been processed turn around to “educate” children when we have forgotten what it is to be a child, and the enthusiasm, energy and creativity that a child has when learning something that connects with a child. But from your experience Alex, why do think girls and boys have both been neglected?

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