Co-Ed Schools Versus Single Sex Schools
Unlike many other countries with a clearly separate public and private school system, the overwhelming of native Singaporeans attend government, or to be more precise, schools following government educational policies and curricula regardless of their origins, with a scant minority attending international, special or private schools. Hence, unlike other countries, Singapore’s public school system contains two distinct types of schools – single-sex and co-educational schools.
The reason behind the distinction is mainly historical. Many of the earliest schools, including Raffles Institution and St. Margaret’s Secondary School are single-sex, and the overwhelming majority of schools established by Christian missionaries remain single-sex today, though exceptions do exist (the present Fairfield Methodist Secondary School was formerly Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School). A prominent school for boys, Hwa Chong Institution (High School), formerly The Chinese High School, was established by a wealthy philanthropist in the 1920s. Hence, it is possible to conclude that almost all, if not all single-sex schools in Singapore have relatively long histories as compared to the many government schools briskly established over the past 40 years.
Although there are no official studies made about single-sex schools versus co-educational counterparts, or the characteristics of their students, some general observations can be made. However, these generalizations are but generalizations and by no means apply universally.
In Singapore, all pre-tertiary institutions, particularly secondary schools, are perceived to have variations in the quality of students and education. There is a clear group of ‘top schools’ and it must be noted that interestingly, many of these are single-sex schools. Taking the few privileged schools once hosting the Gifted Education Programme (which will be discussed in a separate article) as an example, only one (Dunman High School) was co-educational out of a total of seven. Before jumping to hasty conclusions about the superiority of single-sex schools over co-educational schools, this observation must be taken in context.
Bearing in mind that the earliest schools established prior to the advent of universal education in Singapore were primarily single-sex, these early schools accepted only students whose families were wealthy enough to afford education for their children. As time passed, these single-sex schools became the centres of education and even with the advent of universal education continue to attract many of the best and brightest, through affiliations and alumni. Even as the curriculum became standardized and all schools brought under government control, the gap between the academic performance of students in traditional single-sex and new government co-education schools remain. This phenomenon is perpetuated by the indifference shown by both parents and students towards the gender distinction while applying to secondary schools. Inevitably, top boys will end up in top boys’ schools like Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution, and top girls in Raffles Girls’ School (Secondary) and Nanyang Girls’ High School. The only top co-educational school, Dunman High School, was only successful due to extensive government support, such as its convenient location next to a major road (which stifled nearby Chung Cheng High School, located further away from the main road), as well as its implementation of the Gifted Education Programme. Though not all single-sex schools are elite, it is by no means unjustified to say that the top schools are usually single-sex.
Other than the disparity in academic prowess of students produced by the single-sex and co-educational schools, certain generalizations can be made with regards to the students’ characters, personalities and behaviour. Once again we shall focus on the secondary schools, and it must be noted that with the larger number and variety of students attending co-educational schools as compared to those attending single-sex schools, it is impossible to make any generalizations within the co-educational group; hence we shall take a closer look only at single-sex school students.
Due to the nature of the school environment, single-sex schools produce students of an inherently different breed. A major observation made about boys in boys’ schools is of their lack of social skills, ranging from inappropriate social behaviour, conversation, to etiquette, making them seem uncultured and uncouth. Much criticism has been directed at Raffles Institution, the premiere boys’ school in Singapore for this very reason. However, such an observation misleads one into thinking that the average RI boy is less socially-adapt than an ordinary boy from a normal school. Due to the higher expectations of students from single-sex schools (because of their academic prowess), such observations are often made of them. Another observation, directed at boys again, is that of poor communication skills, especially with the opposite sex. This is a justified observation, due to the nature of the environment and the lack of exposure to the opposite sex for most boys in boys’ schools. Fortunately, with the fully co-educational junior college (the high-school equivalent in Singapore) system, such problems are rectified for the vast majority of boys.
Interestingly, girls from girls’ schools are perceived to be more ‘honest’ and ‘sincere’. This is due to the nature of a girls’ school environment, where girls are free of the pressure or opportunity to impress members of the opposite sex, which normally leads to undesirable behaviour such as seduction, conspiracy and backstabbing common in ordinary co-educational institutions. Freed from such pressures, girls often behave more honestly and sincerely, a trait that persists for life. On the other hand, girls in single-sex schools are more competitive as compared to their counterparts in co-educational schools. More often than not, girls from single-sex schools become very much independent and career-oriented, and are less likely to marry, and if they do marry it is at a later age, and with higher incidence of marital discord and divorce. Indeed, girls from the elite single-sex schools often perceive their male counterparts to be of an inadequate standard, and are more likely to marry foreigners. Indeed, these tendencies brought about by single-sex education sparked off the Great Marriage Debate of 1983, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew brought to public attention the problem of highly educated and qualified women (mostly from elite single-sex schools like RGS and NYGH) being unable to find suitable marriage partners.
Some generalizations can be drawn for both boys and girls in single-sex schools. One is that of greater liberality towards homosexuality. Indeed, incidence of homosexuality does appear to be higher in single-sex schools than in co-educational ones. The absence of pressure from the presence of the opposite sex, as well as the more liberal attitudes present (likely due to the open-mindedness associated with the intellectuals, almost all of whom are in single-sex schools), are the likely causes of this. In fact, in Raffles Girls’ School (Secondary), Singapore’s undisputed premiere girls’ school, there exists a school tradition of freshmen having crushes on upperclassmen.
Another disturbing, but much ignored trend among single-sex schools is that of sexism. Many boys in boys’ schools, especially the elite schools like Raffles Institution, develop sexist attitudes during the four years of secondary school education. While they do not (except for rare examples) regard females merely as sex objects, they hold the view that females in Singaporean society wield too much influence and power while avoiding their gender roles of housekeeping and procreation. The same could be said of girls in single-sex schools, who hold the view that males are unimportant and non-essential in their lives. Friction often exists between the counterpart premiere top schools of Singapore, Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls’ School, despite their close association in no small part due to the fiercely competitive attitude of their students, as well as their sexist attitudes. Indeed, it can be said that RI boys and RGS girls generally detest and despise each other. On a larger scale, the implications on Singapore’s social balance and sustainability cannot be ignored.
However, single-sex education is not without its merits. Free of the presence of the opposite sex at the peak of adolescence, students are free to pursue academics and other interests without the distractions of dating or long-term relationships. Coupled with this, sex-related issues such as underage pregnancies are virtually absent in single-sex schools. To generalize, single-sex schools are more conducive academic environments, whereas co-educational schools offer a more conducive environment for social interaction and development of social skills.
Ultimately, the issue of single-sex versus co-educational practices in schools is not a major concern for Singaporeans, who choose schools based on academic ability, prestige, transport convenience and other pragmatic factors over the gender issue. Though the problems listed above are true, many of these are resolved by the fully co-educational tertiary institution system comprising polytechnics, junior colleges and universities. However, just as the forces of history have determined, single-sex schools are likely to remain the choice of many, as their prestige value is unlikely to diminish with the passage of time.