Who Needs All-woman Spaces?

In June 2006, St Hilda's, the last all-women's college at Britain's Oxford University, voted to admit men as well as women, ending a more than century-old tradition. The decision unleashed cheers of delight as well as howls of protest from current and former students and rekindled a wider debate about whether women are better served by being educated away from men at school as well as university.

Overturning earlier votes against going mixed, the college's governing body voted by the two-thirds majority needed to change its statutes and charter to admit men at all levels - from undergraduates to the head of the college.

"We are proud of our heritage as a women's college, but plan to build on that with a new focus for the 21st-century, now that women can go to every college in Oxford," says the principal Lady English (formerly Dr Judith Milne). "We want to ensure that St Hilda's provides an excellent environment for women, but within a mixed community."

Those in favor of the change say St Hilda's should move with the times, now that women - once excluded from the university - can apply to any of its colleges.
Those who think St Hilda's should stay single-sex say that, in the face of a male-dominated university hierarchy, women's colleges are a counterweight that help develop female leadership skills and give a choice to those who prefer to study away from men.

Blogging has provided a forum for many with strong views.

"Female lecturers and professors are hugely outnumbered by their male counterparts within the university and St Hilda's worked as a small counterbalance to this and, more importantly, as a reminder that there is still more to be done in truly winning equality for women's education," wrote Alex da Costa on a BBC website. 

Taking the opposite view, an undergraduate at St Hilda's, signing only as Emma, applauded the decision to go mixed. "I do not think there is any particularly unique atmosphere, nor do I think tradition is any reason to stay single-sex: traditionally women were not allowed into Oxford at all."

Founded as an Oxford Hall for women in 1893, St Hilda's, with its manicured lawns and boarding-school-like atmosphere, has been Oxford's last women's college since 1992 when another formerly all-women's college Somerville went mixed.

Oxford's great rival Cambridge University still has three all-women's colleges - New Hall, Newnham and Lucy Cavendish - where opinions among students are sharply divided. Jennifer Crossley of Cambridge is all for these three colleges going the St Hilda's way, but Anne Rogers of Cambridge believes "it would be very sad" if they did.

Aside from sentiment, an academic research published in 2006 that stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Britain suggests that single-sex education offers no significant advantage or disadvantage. One of Britain's most respected schools experts Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Buckingham University in southern England, led an exhaustive review of data from across the world and unearthed no evidence single-sex schools were consistently superior.
In Hong Kong, where 10 per cent of schools are single-sex, girls appeared to do better in single-sex institutions. But in Belgium, where co-educational schools are in the minority, boys and girls who study together got the best results, according to his findings.

Regardless of whether education is mixed or single-sex, Smithers found "the main determinants of a school's performance are the ability and social background of the pupils".

He said head teachers made "exaggerated claims" about the benefits of girls-only schools because they were under threat as more and more British schools go mixed. However, there is an increasing trend to teach single-sex classes within mixed schools because boys have fallen behind girls, who are generally considered to mature more quickly. Whether separate classes will help remains to be seen, Smithers said in a summary of his research, adding that "trying to tease out the effects of individual classes among all the other influences is even more difficult that comparing schools".

Just like the St Hilda's vote, the Smithers-led research has triggered an impassioned debate. British Sunday newspaper, the 'Observer' printed a series of letters in response. "For girls, a single-sex environment engenders a 'can-do' attitude without any gender stereotyping of subject choices," wrote Brenda Despontin, President of the Girls' School Association, which represents the heads of the leading independent girls' schools in Britain. She cited the example of the US, where she said 40 new girls' schools had opened in the past 10 years because of a belief that they serve young women better than mixed schools.
Smithers agreed that single-sex schools in the US have helped children from deprived backgrounds, but said it was "not because of the gender mix per se, but because it represents a pro-academic choice on the part of their parents or guardians".

Given the generations of struggle needed for women to achieve any education at all, it is not surprising that women have strong feelings about preserving all-female institutions, while men seem far less attached to single-sex education.
Smithers's conclusion is that his research could liberate everyone from the debate and at least some of the agonizing about which education is right for a particular individual. "Education is not a mechanism in which there is an imperative to mix or separate the sexes," his research states. "Most parents seem to be looking for a good school regardless of its gender mix."
But his female critics will not allow him the last word.

"Despite better performances in public exams, females still seem to fall behind males in terms of earnings and promotion," said Maria Goulding of the Department of Educational Studies at the University of York in northern England, again in a letter to the 'Observer'. "It may be that there is a residual effect of single-sex schooling for girls, derived from greater confidence...which carries some girls forward once they have left school and university."

And so she called for yet more research.  


More by :  Barbara Lewis

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