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Co-ed classrooms versus single-sex classrooms

The great debate over whether boys and girls thrive together or separately

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Coed education versus single sex schools


For parents who invest in independent education, helping their children make the right choice - if there is a right choice - is a daunting task. For many, sending kids to independent school is a commitment to giving them the best start, so finding the right fit, be it a co-ed or single-sex classroom, is key. But the only thing as complicated as boys and girls trying to figure each other out, is figuring out whether or not they want to attend school together. Given gender stereotypes and differences between the sexes, the question has yet to be settled: Do girls and boys learn better together or separately?

A case for co-ed schools

Co-ed enthusiasts explain that their environment better reflects the real world and, if done right, can offer a balance. Sarah McMahon, admissions director at Lakefield College School, about one hour northeast of Toronto, Ontario stresses that, while "it's an individual decision," she's a fan of the co-ed approach.

"This is the reality of the world. You're going to be in an environment that's both male and female, and I think it's a healthy environment to grow up in," she explains.

"The camaraderie that develops between the boys and girls is very special. In a single-sex school, you miss out on that."

Until 12 years ago, Lakefield was boys-only, but is now co-ed. Grade 11 student Kelly Bignell has been there since Grade 7, and some of her best friends are boys. "I can talk to my guy friends about anything," she says. "I cherish the friendships I've made here."

David Robertson, headmaster at Shawnigan Lake School, a coed boarding high school in BC, says boys and girls ultimately have a more enriching educational experience when they get to learn together. "There's a cross-pollination that goes on in the academic environment," Robertson says. "The diligence and attentiveness of girls positively affects boys, while the liveliness of boys inspires girls. They learn from and are inspired by each other."

Coed schools better prepare girls and boys for post-secondary school and employment by providing ongoing opportunities to work together, he adds. "They learn to work together productively, which is what they will be expected to do throughout their life. So there is good preparation happening for university and beyond."

Since co-education is the norm in North American public schools, most of the research in the field has focused on the efficacy of single-sex education. Single-Sex Education: What Does Research Tell Us?, a 2010 review of several studies on single-sex education in English-speaking countries, found little consensus on whether the option is actually advantageous to girls' and boys' academic achievement.

A case for single-sex schools

Additional research shows boys and girls have unique requirements if they're to reach their full potential. Supporters of the single-sex model say that, because studies show boys and girls learn differently, they should be in a school that caters to those needs and single-sex schools consider these differences to create customized programs that optimize success.

"Girls and boys really do learn differently," says Dona Matthews, an author and education psychologist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. "Girls are more likely than boys to want to learn co-operatively and collaboratively. Boys tend to be more competitive and to get something good from being competitive."

"In coed schools, boys tend to populate the lower end of the academic spectrum," says Brad Adams, executive director of the International Boys' Schools Coalition. "Boys' schools specialize in designing curriculum that hooks boys into learning."

At boys' schools, boys are more engaged in learning without being in a gender pressure cooker, Adams adds.

"They have a longer time to be boys and to explore various interests, for example, in the arts, without getting straitjacketed into some stereotypical gender role, such as the jock," he explains.

The main strength of all-boys and all-girls schools is reflected in the 2008 study Single-Sex Schooling and Academic Attainment at School and Through the Lifecourse. The study found that the option helps students succeed in gender-atypical subjects; for example, girls will perform better in math and science, and boys will do better in English and modern languages.

For girls, much of the benefit lies in developing their personhood in an environment free of persistent traditional gender stereotypes that can hold women back.

"In many ways, gender dynamics have not changed, and in most of the world, public life is still the domain of men, and domestic life that of women," says Burch Ford, president of the U.S.-based National Coalition of Girls' Schools (NCGS). "Girls' schools provide not only a physical but a psychological space where that part of our culture is left at the door, and girls have the freedom to explore who they are and who they want to become.”

Girls who attend single-sex schools outscore their coed counterparts on the SAT by an average of 28 to 43 points, and nearly 100 percent of girls' school graduates go on to college, according to the NCGS.

"In girls' schools, there is no social consequence for speaking out, challenging ideas and being yourself, which allows girls to develop the kind of critical- and creative-thinking skills that are essential in the 21st-century workforce," Ford says.

Eleanor Moore, of The Linden School for girls in Toronto, says people ask a lot of the co-ed classroom because "it's hard to be all things to all people."

Shifting dynamics and emphasis on learning styles

Until recently, much of the research highlighted the challenges faced by girls. Many felt intimidated during adolescence; not only were their voices being lost in the co-ed classroom, they were missing out on developing leadership, math, science and technology skills. The focus has shifted, however, to how co-ed classrooms are failing boys.

Statistics released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2001 showed girls significantly outscored boys in reading in all 32 countries tested. In Canada, boys lagged more than 30 points behind girls.

And, with Ontario's province-wide tests also showing that boys are suffering, many parents are looking for options that will focus on their sons' needs.

Traditional classrooms are more female-friendly, says Peter Jackson, administrator at Saint John's School of Alberta, a boys-only facility outside Edmonton, Alberta. Boys aren't programmed to sit quietly for long periods and focus on one task. They're easily distracted, they're loud and, especially in early adolescence, "they're brimming over with energy- - if you could harness it, you could power a city," he says.

"Boys are having a much harder time," acknowledges Matthews, who, in her private psychology practice, sees a lot of smart little boys who are identified as having behaviour problems, when really they're just curious children.

As a result, Saint John's structures its schedule to respond to boys' needs. "We have smaller classes and we're able to work out that energy," Jackson says. "The day is broken so they're not just sitting at a desk." Instead, they're doing chores, playing sports and participating in the school's Outdoor Adventure Program, which includes expeditions to explore Canada's geography and history.

At Linden, a women-centred approach focuses on women's stories and takes into account girls' personalities. "We know that girls are very much socially and psychologically rooted in relationships." Moore says. "If girls view relationships as key, then it's important in teaching."

Arranging the the Linden science lab in an hour-glass shape encourages discussions, and students also call teachers by their first names, treating them as guides, or comrades, rather than all-knowing beings. This holistic approach allows girls to take responsibility for their education and develop independence.

It also puts the focus on academics, says Moore, who, like Jackson, believes students are less distracted in a single-sex school.

"I think for the most part they're much freer in nature," she explains."They don't have to put being cool before learning."

Kimberley Noble says she's relieved her 13-year-old daughter Lucy doesn't have to deal with the peer pressure of the co-ed classroom, where some girls are pushed to grow up too soon or act a certain way to impress boys.

"I would much rather Lucy go out into the world of relationships as a really strong fully formed person and I think that's what she's getting where she is," says Noble. "The all-girls environment gives them a lot of freedom to look at who they are and what they want to be in the world."

While single-sex classrooms do help girls maintain confidence and keep their options open when it comes to careers and academics, says Matthews, separating the girls from the boys isn't the only answer. "When there's been qualitative study done of single-sex environments in which girls are shown to do better, and when people learn about what's going on there and apply that to co-ed environments, you get even better things going on.

"Rather than segregate, it's always better to figure out how to diversify the classroom," she suggests.

Kelly Bignell agrees, emphasizing that she enjoys the well-rounded experience her co-ed school offers: "I think you get so many more different views, especially in a classroom discussion."


While the single-sex/co-ed question raises plenty of issues for parents and students to consider, no one answer is right or wrong. "It's very much an individual differences phenomenon," Matthews says. "For some girls and some boys the single-sex environment is absolutely right, for some it's absolutely wrong."

Co-ed vs. single sex questions to consider

According to the experts, up to 80 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls have brains similar enough that they will respond to the same learning style. But what about the 20 percent that differs?

As a parent, you probably have a gut feeling that your little girl or boy doesn’t quite fit the mould. Test those instincts against the following questions, informed by the observations of teacher Tom Stevens (who has taught both sexes):

checkbox DOES YOUR CHILD WORK BEST COLLABORATIVELY, OR DOES HE LIKE TO COMPETE? Girls tend to learn best when there is co-operation; boys like to be pitted against each other.

checkbox IS YOUR CHILD A BORN READER OR DOES SHE GRAVITATE MORE TO PHYSICAL ACTIVITIES? Generally, boys need encouragement to sit quietly with a book.

checkbox DOES YOUR CHILD LEARN BEST BY HEARING OR SEEING OR BY DOING? While girls tend to learn from a spoken lesson, boys seem to be more experiential.

checkbox DOES YOUR CHILD SHOW AFFECTION BY CUDDLING OR BY PLAY-FIGHTING? Teachers like Stevens observe that while most girls hug and kiss, boys prefer roughhousing.


checkbox IS YOUR CHILD AN ENGAGED LISTENER OR DO YOU HAVE TO REPEAT YOURSELF? Boys tend to have shorter attention spans.

— Liza Finlay

Co-ed versus single-sex classroom resources


  • ALL GIRLS: Single-Sex Education and Why It Matters by Karen Stabiner (Riverhead Books)

  • BOYS AND GIRLS LEARN DIFFERENTLY: A Guide for Teachers and Parents by Michael Gurian (Wiley)

  • BOYS THEMSELVES: A Return to Single Sex Education by Michael Ruhlman (Henry Holt)

  • FAILING AT FAIRNESS: How Our Schools Cheat Girls by Myra Sadker and David Sadker (Touchstone Books)

  • SEPARATE SEXES, SEPARATE SCHOOLS: A Pro/Con Issue by Barbara C. Cruz (Enslow Publishers)


Parents interested in the latest info on the advantages of co-ed schools can go right to our portal on coed schools.

Our kids also features comprehensive lists of all boys schools and all girls schools.

  • www.singlesexschools.org The National Association for Single Sex Public Education chronicles a variety of studies promoting single-sex classrooms. It also documents how boys' and girls' brains develop differently, leading to their unique needs in the classroom.

  • www.acer.edu.au Two years ago, the Australian Council for Education Research released the study "Boys in School and Society."

  • www.donamatthews.com Dona Matthews is an author and education psychologist at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. View her essays on education at this site.

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List of Co-ed classrooms versus single-sex classrooms

      School Name Type Cost

    Robert Land Academy (est. 1978)

    • Wellandport, Ontario
    • 5 to 12 Boys
    • Boarding school (125 students)
    Robert Land Academy is a private military-themed boarding school (Gr 5-12) helping boys to achieve their potential and gain admission to post-secondary programs. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $52,000 to $55,000

    Our Kids

    • Our Kids Review
    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Boarding52000

    Crescent School (est. 1913)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • 3 to 12 Boys
    • Day school (743 students)
    Crescent School is a Toronto independent school for boys only, Grades 3 to 12. Tuition starts at $32,350. Crescent offers a variety of extra-curricular activities including sports, arts, outreach and robotics. [View profile]
    • Traditional

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Day32350

    Upper Canada College (est. 1829)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • SK to 12 Boys
    • Day school (1072 students)
    • Boarding school (88 students)
    Located in the heart of Toronto, Upper Canada College is the oldest independent boys' school in Ontario. Our graduates are highly regarded by top universities and post-secondary institutions worldwide. [View profile]
    • Liberal Arts
    • International Baccalaureate
    $30,860 to $61,560

    reviews (1)

    • User reviews (1)
    Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Boarding Day30860

    Northmount School (est. 1990)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • JK to 8 Boys
    • Day school (115 students)
    Northmount School offers an enriched curriculum in Catholic education from junior kindergarten to grade eight in Toronto. Its average class size is eight to 15 students. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $15,000 to $23,500

    Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Boys Day15000

    The Sterling Hall School (est. 1987)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • JK to 8 Boys
    • Day school (312 students)
    The Sterling Hall School is a leading independent school for boys, JK to Grade 8. We understand how boys learn best and we support each boy in his learning journey. [View profile]
    • Progressive

    Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Boys Day28800

    Hampshire Country School (est. 1948)

    • Rindge, New Hampshire
    • 3 to 12 Boys
    • Boarding school (22 students)
    A friendly, active boarding school for bright boys who have good intentions but who may be too impulsive, intense, or bothersome for other schools and whose intellectual interests may separate them from their peers. [View profile]
    • Liberal Arts
    $58,500 USD

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Boarding58500

    Royal St. George's College (est. 1964)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • 3 to 12 Boys
    • Day school (426 students)
    RSGC is an urban day school that combines academic excellence with a stimulating and supportive environment. Our mission is to challenge and inspire each boy to become the best version of himself. [View profile]
    • Progressive

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Day30540

    St. Peter's ACHS College School (est. 1990)

    • Harrow, Ontario
    • 1 to 8 Boys
    • Day school
    • Boarding school
    St. Peter's ACHS College School in Amherstburg, Ont. is a day/residency school for boys grades 1-8 who love Sports and the Outdoors. Tuition starts at $8,900. and is a member of OFIS. We put "FUN" back into learning. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $8,900 to $27,400

    Elementary MiddleSchools Boys Boarding Day8900

    Linbrook School (est. 2014)

    • Oakville, Ontario
    • JK to 8 Boys
    • Day school (180 students)
    Linbrook School is Oakville's only all-boys school. This independent, not-for-profit day school fosters and supports each individual students special skills as an athlete, musician, performer, artist, writer or humanitarian. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $20,100 to $23,700

    Kindergarten Elementary MiddleSchools Boys Day9999999999

    Villa Maria (est. 1854)

    • Montreal, Quebec
    • 7 to 11 Girls/Boys
    • Day school (1400 students)
    Villa Maria offers programs from grades seven to 12 in Montreal. Its average class size is 28 to 32 students. [View profile]
    • Traditional

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Girls Boys Day4175

    St. Stanislaus College Prep (est. 1854)

    • Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi
    • 7 to 12 Boys
    • Day school (315 students)
    • Boarding school (72 students)
    St. Stanislaus College Prep is a faith-based school that offers programs from grades 7 to 12 in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $25,510 to $33,950 USD

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Boarding Day25510

    North Point School For Boys (est. 2014)

    • Calgary, Alberta
    • K to 9 Boys
    • Day school (60 students)
    North Point provides a program for boys that is a fundamental re-thinking of how a classroom operates. We design environments and experiences that are specifically geared to challenge and engage boys. [View profile]
    • Progressive
    $7,000 to $12,000

    Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Day7000

    St. Andrew's College (est. 1899)

    • Aurora, Ontario
    • 5 to 12 Boys
    • Day school (367 students)
    • Boarding school (259 students)
    St. Andrew's College offers programs from grades 5 to 12 in Aurora. Its average class size is 17 students. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $30,120 to $63,500

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Boarding Day30120

    Fork Union Military Academy (est. 1898)

    • Fork Union, Virginia
    • 7 to 12 Boys
    • Day school (30 students)
    • Boarding school (400 students)
    This military academy in Fork Union, Virginia is the premier college preparatory boarding military schools for boys in grades 7-12. Renowned for its emphasis on Christian values, academics and athletics. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $32,000 to $37,450 USD

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Boarding Day32000

    St. Michael's College School (est. 1852)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • 7 to 12 Boys
    • Day school (1035 students)
    St. Michael's College School offers students in Grades 7-12 an enriched, Catholic, liberal arts education complemented by a diverse co-curricular programme. [View profile]
    • Liberal Arts

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Day9999999999

    Selwyn House School (est. 1901)

    • Westmount, Quebec
    • K to 11 Boys
    • Day school (540 students)
    Selwyn House School provides a well-rounded education of exceptional depth and scope for boys from Kindergarten to Grade 11. It is located in Westmount, Quebec. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    $17,500 to $22,500

    Elementary MiddleSchools HighSchools Boys Day17500

    Venture Academy Troubled Teens Program (ON)

    • Barrie Area, Ontario
    • 7 to 12 Boys/Girls
    Venture Academy is a therapeutic treatment and education program for students who may be struggling with ADHD, learning challenges, underachieving, behavioural issues, and a variety of clinical diagnoses. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    not provided

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Girls Boys Homestay9999999999

    Heritage (est. 1984)

    • Provo, Utah
    • 7 to 12 Boys/Girls
    • Boarding school (115 students)
    Heritage offers expert care for at-risk adolescents including those diagnosed with Mood Disorder, depression, anxiety, defiance towards authority figures and those on the Autism Spectrum. Learn more on our website. [View profile]
    • Progressive
    $138,000 USD

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Girls Boys Boarding138000

    St. Clement's Early Learning School (est. 1955)

    • Toronto, Ontario
    • NS to 2 Coed/Boys
    • Day school (150 students)
    St. Clement's Early Learning School 70 St. Clements Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4R 1H2 St. Clement’s Early Learning School provides a child with an opportunity for growth in all areas of his or her development. [View profile]
    • Progressive
    $8,500 to $20,500

    Preschool Kindergarten Elementary Boys Coed Day8500

    Venture Academy Troubled Teens Program (BC)

    • Kelowna, British Columbia
    • 7 to 12 Boys/Girls
    Venture Academy is a therapeutic private school providing educational and clinical support services, individualized instruction and engaging interaction to get students back on track and restore confidence. [View profile]
    • Traditional
    not provided

    MiddleSchools HighSchools Girls Boys Homestay9999999999