Supporters of single-gender schools have given the schools a vote of confidence in the wake of the assault scandal at St. Michael’s. Photo from Pixabay

Educators stand up for single-gender schools

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  • November 30, 2018

The scandal that has erupted at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School involving bullying and assault allegations has prompted suggestions that a “toxic masculinity” at the all-boys’ school played a role in incidents that have resulted in eight expulsions, six students facing serious charges and one student suspended. It’s also led to some calls to abolish single-sex schools.

The move to end all-boy and all-girl education is not widespread, but the suggestion has been around for a while and received added fuel in the wake of the crisis at St. Michael’s.

These are whispers Nancy Crawford has heard over her many years as a trustee with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which isn’t affliated with St. Michael’s but operates four all-boys schools and six schools for girls only. Single-sex schools are regarded as “specialty programming” and somewhat elitist, but no matter how loud the whispers, no government has acted to curtail them.

“I would caution against” putting an end to single-gender schools, Crawford said. 

The alleged actions at St. Michael’s that have brought disrepute to the prestigious all-boys’ school are unfortunate, said Crawford. She admits some may call her naive, but she doesn’t see a link between the incidents at St. Michael’s and the all-boys’ environment. What Crawford does see is improved chances at success through the single-gender option.

“I think it meets a number of needs that can’t be met at a co-ed school,” she said. “There’s a level of comfort being with your peers and there’s a level of academic benefits.” 

On it’s website, St. Michael’s explains its rationale for maintaining an all-boys’ environment for the past 166 years. It says single-sex education offers unique educational opportunities and allows boys to develop strong fraternal relationships and a positive sense of self worth. The curriculum, it says, is taught in a manner that has shown to be engaging for young men. 

But is single-gender education the way to go? Studies offer conflicting answers.

Research by the Ontario government’s Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat in 2007 had inconclusive results. Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, cited 2014 research that found “no significant differences in academic achievement between students in single-sex and co-educational schools.”

Proponents of single-sex schools though, counter these conclusions with studies of their own. The National Association for Single-sex Public Education in the United States cites several studies from around the world showing single-sex schools produce students with better grades. Among these were a Cambridge University study (2003) that found “using single-sex groups was a significant factor in establishing a school culture that would raise educational achievement.”  

Anthony Yeow doesn’t need studies to reinforce his belief in the benefits of all-boy schools. He sees it every day in the classrooms at Toronto’s Northmount School. A number of Northmount’s newer students transferred from co-ed schools, “and when they entered an all-boys’ environment they’re really starting to strive,” said the JK-to-Grade 8 school’s director of character education.

Boys tend to be less advanced in motor skills development at an earlier age, said Yeow. But by shaping the curriculum to be more-male-focused, he finds the boys enjoy school more and that leads them to be “a lot more engaged.” 

Yeow cannot emphasize enough the role of mentors, overwhelmingly male, in helping Northmount students develop. That makes a difference in developing the “manly” side of the boy.

“They understand that they are called to be a man and not to be machoistic in the wrong way.” 

A strong moral compass is something staff aim to instil in the girls at Holy Name of Mary College School in Mississauga, Ont., as well. Head of School Marilena Tesoro wants the girls at the only independent Catholic girls’ school in Ontario to be “beacons of light” for girls in the future.

These girls do “remarkably well academically,” said Tesoro, “but we also want to build leadership, build that moral compass and ignite that spiritual core within them.”

It’s much easier in an all-girls’ environment. Girls naturally perceive themselves to be less powerful and tend to hold back. But at schools like Holy Name, they reject the gender stereotype.

“Girls get more motivation, they believe in themselves. They are more resilient to disrupt the gender bias because they see other girls doing it and they see others encouraging them,” said Tesoro.

This translates into long-term success, particularly in non-traditional areas like STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies. 

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