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Resurgence of single sex education institutions

EducationWorld September 06 | EducationWorld

New research data suggests that learning happens better when the sexes are segregated. right across the world, gender specific education institutions are making a comeback. Summiya Yasmeen reports

For the trendy metropolitan fast crowd, they may be passé. But if you believed single-sex education institutions were about to become extinct, think again. New research data suggests that learning happens better when the sexes are segregated and right across the world, gender specific education institutions are making a comeback.

According to the US-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) during the past eight years, single-sex public i.e government funded, schools in America have grown from just four to 44 currently, while another 179 co-ed public schools have begun to offer gender-separate options to students. Legislators in the US — the country in the forefront of co-ed schooling worldwide — are obviously doing a re-think about the merits of co-education. They recently amended Title IX of the Education Amendments (1972) “to provide more flexibility for educators to establish single-sex classes and schools at the elementary and secondary levels”.

Meanwhile in Britain, the original home of single-sex public (i.e private, exclusive) schools, there are over 289 girls and 185 boys schools. And of the top 20 schools which routinely feature in annual best British schools’ rankings, 18-19 are single-sex institutions.

Back home in India where Hindu and Islamic fundamentalism is experiencing a renaissance, there is increasing evidence of a resurgence of single-sex education institutions particularly for women at the tertiary level. According to reliable estimates, the number of women’s colleges in the country has grown from 780 in 1987 to over 1,600 in 2005. India also boasts five all-women universities with the Karnataka Women’s University promoted in Bijapur as recently as August 2003 and a sixth (Bhagat Phool Singh Women’s University) in Sonepat, Haryana all set to admit its first batch of students in 2007.

“Gender segregated education is making a comeback not just in India but across the world, because parents and educators are convinced that the academic performance of students is better when the sexes learn separately. In the case of women, single-sex schools, colleges and universities help them achieve not just better grades, but also boost their self-esteem and prepare them to assume leadership roles. There’s growing belief that they provide women — especially in traditional patriarchal societies like India — the opportunity to pursue education which otherwise would be denied to them. In fact they are vital to improving female enrollment in schools and institutions of higher learning. We need more of them,” says Veena Noble Dass, vice-chancellor of Sri Padmavathi Mahila Viswa Vidyalayam, an all-women’s university established in Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh) in 1983, which in early February this year hosted a three-day UGC-sponsored interna-tional conference on the theme ‘Women’s universities: challenges and perspectives’.

In secondary school education as well, middle class parents are increasingly opting for single-sex over co-education institutions for their children. Delhi-based Sandeep Dutt, author of Good Schools of India (English Book Depot, 1999) and well-known educationist, says that over 65 percent of private schools in India are single-sex institutions. “Quite a few parents are re-assessing attitudes and acknowledging that single-sex schools are better suited to the Indian social context. Perhaps because the most highly rated schools in India are — and continue to remain — single-sex insitutions. Co-education is essentially a Western import, which is yet to prove itself in India. The centuries old gurukul tradition of education supports sexually segregated schools,” says Dutt.

But if Indian parents and educationists are rediscovering the virtues of single-sex education institutions, they are in step with expert and research opinion worldwide which is veering towards gender segregated education. Though expert opinion during the 1980-90s tended to favour co-education, recent research studies in the US and Britain indicate that unisex school students achieve better academic results. For instance a 2001 study conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research which compared student performance at single-sex and co-educational schools found that boys and girls studying in the former attained 15-22 percentile ranks higher than children in co-educational environments. The council’s analysis, based on six years of study of 270,000 students in 53 academic subjects, documented that “boys and girls in single-sex schools are more likely to be better behaved, to find learning more enjoyable and the curriculum more relevant”. (see box p.54)

Inevitably back home in India where universities are research resistant, similar statistical data is unavailable. However the overwhelming majority of school and college principals interviewed for this feature by EducationWorld correspondents across the country believe that sexually segregated education improves learning outcomes. “The academic performance of students in single-sex colleges is definitely better than of students in co-ed institutions. This is mainly because in single-sex classrooms boys and girls feel more at ease, feel free to interact with teachers and participate in extra-curricular activities, are less distracted, and able to concentrate on learning. Therefore it’s not surprising that in Chennai, colleges with the best academic reputation — Stella Maris, Ethiraj, Women’s Christian College, MOP Vaishnav etc — are single-sex institutions,” says Dr. Nirmala Prasad, principal of the well-reputed MOP Vaishnav College for Women and a member of the Madras University syndicate.

While new research on learning outcomes has prompted a resurgence of single-sex education institutions in liberal and egalitarian western societies, the prime reason behind the Indian preference for sexually segregated learning institutions is the illiberal prejudices of patriarchal and gender-biased Indian society. Most parents of girl children in rural and urban India are suspicious of male-female interaction on campuses. Myriad socio-economic reasons — which include religious (in Muslim society segregation of sexes is demanded by religion), fear of ‘eve teasing’ and sexual harassment by male students, pre-marital sex, AIDS and the consequent social stigma — are advanced in favour of gender specific education.

“I can say with complete surety that most of our students at SNDT Women’s University are studying here only because it’s an all-women’s institution. Though there is a lot of talk that traditional mindsets have changed, the ground reality is that parents even in metros like Mumbai, are averse to girl children studying in co-educational institutions. They would prefer their daughters to stay home rather than enroll in colleges where they have to interact with men,” says Chandra Ganesh, the Mumbai-based dean of student welfare at the 90-year-old Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey University (SNDT) which boasts a massive enrollment of 40,000 women students in its Mumbai campus and 26 affiliated women’s colleges countrywide.

Box 1

Case for gender specific schools

Recent research studies conducted by educators in Britain, Australia and the United States indicate that students of single-sex schools tend to record superior academic results and are better behaved. This new body of empirical evidence is prompting a review of popular opinions about the virtues of co-education. “In the past five years, there has been an extraordinary surge of interest in single-sex public education. The most important factor driving this resurgence is growing recognition that girls and boys learn differently. We now have good evidence that single-sex classrooms can break down gender stereotypes. Girls in single-sex educational settings are more likely to take classes in maths, science, and information technology. Boys in single-sex schools are more likely to pursue interests in art, music, drama, and foreign languages. Both girls and boys have more freedom to explore their own interests and abilities in single-gender classrooms,” says Dr. Leonard Sax, a research psychologist and founder of the US-based National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

Some path breaking single-sex vs co-education studies and their conclusions are given below. 

In June 2005, Cambridge University published the outcome of a four-year study of gender differences in education. Researchers found that the single-sex classroom format is very effective in boosting boys’ performance, particularly in English and foreign languages, as well as improving girls’ performance in maths and science.

A University of Virginia study published in 2003 indicated that boys who attended single-sex schools are more than twice as likely to pursue interests in subjects such as art, music, drama, and foreign languages, compared to boys of comparable ability who attended co-ed schools. Single-sex schools break down gender stereotypes while co-ed schools reinforce them, concluded the study.

The National Foundation for Educational Research surveyed 2,954 high schools across Britain in 2002 to determine the effect of school size and type (single-sex and co-ed) on academic performance. They found that both girls and boys performed significantly better in single-sex schools and that girls at single-sex schools are more likely to take non-traditional courses which run against gender stereotypes such as advanced maths and physics. The foundation concluded: “It would be possible to infer from the findings that in order to maximise performance, schools should have about 180 pupils per cohort, or year, and be single-sex.” 

The Australian Council for Educational Research compared the academic performance of students at single-sex and co-educational schools in 2001. Their analysis, based on six years of study of 270,000 students in 53 academic subjects, demonstrated that both boys and girls educated in single-sex classrooms scored on average 15-22 percentile ranks higher than boys and girls in co-education settings. The report also documented that “boys and girls in single-sex schools are more likely to be better behaved and to find learning more enjoyable and the curriculum more relevant.”

In 1998, the British Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) tested whether socio-economic variables might account for the superior performance of students in single-sex schools. It examined test results from 800 public schools, single-sex and co-educational. OFSTED found that the superior performance of students in single-sex schools cannot be accounted for by socio-economic factors, but appears instead to be a direct result of single-sex education. They also found that students in single-sex schools have a significantly more positive attitude toward learning.


Parental anxiety to censor mixed interaction even at the university level is confirmed by Sr. M. Albina, principal of the women’s only Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, which was recently awarded autonomous status by the University Grants Commission. “Most parents believe that their daughters are safer in a women’s college. They are resistant to any form of interaction with males. During seminars, discussions and inter-college cultural festivals, when interaction with male students is necessary, some parents go to the extent of wanting their daughters exempted from participation,” says Sr. Albina.

Rekha Nan Bhosle, a 20-year-old BA student of SNDT University who finances her education by working as a domestic help, had bitter arguments with her parents before they permitted her to pursue higher education and the final clincher was that SNDT admitted only women students. “I wouldn’t have been allowed to continue higher study if SNDT wasn’t an all-women’s university. If this is the situation in a metro like Mumbai, you can imagine how many girls in villages must be staying home because there is no girls school or accessible women’s college. There should be separate all-girl schools and colleges in every village and district, so that women can study and become employable and financially independent,” says Bhosle.

Indeed in the vast unpoliced hinterland of rural India where 90 percent of government schools are co-educational, most girl children are withdrawn from school after class V, because their parents fear sexual harassment and worse by unruly boys and males. According to the Public Report on Basic Education (1999) 50 percent of girl children drop out after class V (cf. 33 percent of boys). “In village and small town India, parents are rigidly conservative and even harmless friendships between girls and boys in school bear a social stigma. That’s why most girls when they attain puberty are forced to drop out of school to avoid interaction with males. Parents don’t feel their daughters are safe in under- provided and unsupervised co-ed village schools. Therefore single-sex and particularly separate toilet facilities in secondary schools in rural India are critical to the education advancement of girl children,” says Mythili Sivaraman, Chennai-based vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.

Unfortunately within the government establishment where education officials flit from seminars to workshops in five-star hotels in Delhi and the state capitals, little attention is paid to such vital details. The Union government’s Total Sanitation Campaign was allocated a niggardly provision of Rs.720 crore in the Union budget 2006-07. And currently 58 percent of the estimated 800,000 government schools don’t provide any toilet facilities at all to school-going children of either sex.

Nor are the fears of parents for their daughters entirely unfounded. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Delhi, a crime against women is committed every three minutes — molestation every 15 minutes; sexual harassment every 53 minutes; rape every 29 minutes. A publication of the UK-based charity Panos London, titled Beyond victims and villains: addressing sexual violence in the education sector (2003) quotes a 1997 survey of 200 women college and university students in Mumbai which found that “39 percent (of women) complained of harassment, including verbal comments, lewd songs, and harassment through phone calls and staring at women’s breasts, particularly in canteens and at the entrance gate”.

Nor is molestation and harassment of women students confined to unruly students. Male faculty members are also “a source of harassment including physical touching, continuous staring, ridiculing female students, introducing sexual innuendo or discomfiting content into teaching and offering marks for sex,” says the survey report.

Comments Stuti Garg, public educator of the Lucknow-based voluntary organisation Humsafar, a women’s advocacy group, which conducts gender sensitisation and awareness programmes in 20 schools and colleges across the city including Lucknow University: “While a co-educational setting is ideal because it helps men and women prepare for life after college, most male youths especially in small town India, have confused ideas and myths about women students and working women. Gender sensitisation programmes are essential to help such youth, who conditioned by a centuries-old patriarchal society, don’t accept women as autonomous equals. In our awareness programme we work with students through poster, essay, slogan and debate competitions to illustrate why passing inappropriate comments on girls, whistling, teasing etc. constitutes sexual harassment. Co-education is relatively new in India; it will take some years before gender stereotyping of women abates.”

Adds Dr. Es Charles, principal of the highly reputed Isabella Thoburn College (estb. 1870), Lucknow, which has an enrollment of 2,500 women students: “It’s healthy to teach men and women to interact at the undergrad level in a co-educational environment. But most men students can’t accept women as equals and this creates tensions on campus. Even in an all-women college like ours, when we organise fetes and festivals open to men, the experience is usually unpleasant. Incidences of harassment and molestation compelled us to discontinue open college festivals,” says Charles.

Nevertheless not a few intellectuals insist that co-education is preferable to the promotion and encouragement of single-sex education institutions. The obvious argument that segregated institutions are hot-house institutions which don’t familiarise or prepare women to cope with the real world outside college apart, proponents of co-education believe that mixed institutions create healthier societies beyond institutional walls.

The viewpoint is cogently advanced by Dr. Nandini Sundar, sociologist at the postgrad Delhi School of Economics. “Co-ed institutions are better suited for us. They stop people from having wild ideas and fantasies about the opposite sex, change gender stereotypes and lead to normal, healthy human behaviour which is good for society. Although there’s some truth in the argument that single-sex institutions are safer for girls, in the larger interest of building a healthy society we should encourage co-education, with the law imposing stringent punishment for crimes against women. Mixed, open societies in which women work alongside men are always more enterprising and productive, ” says Sundar.

Box 2

Best for women

In the US, the national spotlight on New York senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a graduate of the women-only Wellesley College and front-runner to become the first woman president of the world’s sole super-power, has revived interest in all-women colleges. Suddenly arguments are being advanced that single-sex education institutions offer focus, leadership experience and mentoring opportunities, promote high achievement and self-esteem in women, encourage them to pursue traditionally male-dominated careers and diminish some of the disadvan-tages women suffer in co-educational settings.

According to an Indiana University (USA) study report titled Women students at co-educational and women’s colleges: how do their experiences compare? students in all- women’s colleges have more engaging and challenging academic experiences than their female counterparts in co-ed liberal arts colleges.

Moreover, according to statistics provided by the Women’s College Coalition (USA), graduates of all-women’s colleges:

• Constitute more than 20 percent of women in Congress, and 30 percent of a Business Week list of rising women stars in corporate America

• Create greater opportunities to hold leadership positions than women from co-ed institutions

• Report greater satisfaction than their co-ed counterparts with their college experience — academically, develop-mentally, and personally

• Press on towards doctorates in maths, science and engineering in dis-proportionately large numbers

• Develop measurably higher levels of self-esteem than other achieving women from co-ed institutions

• Score higher in standardised achievement tests

• Five of the top ten and 11 percent of the 218 national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News & World Report’s â€˜America’s Best Colleges’ are all women institutions

Obviously the benefits derived from attending women-only colleges are universal. Comments Sudha Raghunathan, a well-known Chennai-based Carnatic music vocalist and Padma Shri awardee, who attended the single-sex Sophia Convent in Bangalore and later the Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai: “At our girls’ school and all-women college we paid focused attention to developing values such as discipline, independence, self-esteem and responsibility without self-consciousness or embarrassment. Today, I fearlessly travel around the world on my own. I can interact with men and am equipped with life skills to deal with any situation. Our girls-only campus environment was very secure and conducive for developing whatever academic and cultural talents we had. I don’t believe I would have been the well-rounded extrovert I am, had I attended a co-ed college.” 

And although proponents of single-sex institutions of learning are in the majority even in contemporary 21st century India, for reasons advanced by Dr. Sundar, a growing number of progressive parents within the country’s fast expanding middle class are enrolling their children in co-ed schools.

Down south in Chennai — widely acknowledged as a conservative city dominated by all-women colleges such as Stella Maris, Women’s Christian College and Ethiraj — Usha Davalur, programme manager at the US Consulate, chose to enroll her daughter in the co-ed Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan. “Since they are destined to work and live together with men, women should learn how to deal with males in the workplace and at home. And what better way to begin than in school?” asks Davalur.

Dr. Anil Wilson, principal of the 125-year-old St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, widely acknowledged as India’s best liberal arts college, endorses this reasoning. “The co-education debate is no longer relevant. Its benefits are so overwhelming that it’s unnecessary to debate them. As early as the 1920s, St. Stephen’s was a co-ed college. And the only reason why it reverted to an all-men institution in the 1950s was to help the all-women Miranda House establish itself. When that process was over, St. Stephen’s once again opened its doors to women in 1975. Today all our study programmes and co-curricular activities are open to men and women students and we are proud that both sexes are given equal opportunity to excel,” says Wilson.

But although some trend-setting education institutions such as St. Stephen’s have managed to successfully integrate male and women students, the great majority of co-ed schools and colleges across the country are unable to strike the right balance. The majority of even nominally co-ed institutions are run as separate single-sex institutions on the same campus, with minimum interaction between them. The conservative, paternalistic mindset of most state government aided colleges and universities was famously exposed this May when the Bangalore University Syndicate, the apex decision-making body of the 42-year-old varsity which boasts 375 affiliated colleges, approved a proposal put forward by a syndicate member to segregate male and female students in classrooms, i.e seat them separately. Though subsequent student protests and widespread indignation expressed by academics in the city and elsewhere about postgrad students being treated like children resulted in a reversal of the proposal, proponents of campus segregation are by no means cowed.

“I still believe that men and women students even at postgrad level, should be seated separately in classrooms and lecture halls. I’m not against academic interaction between them but I condemn flirtatious behaviour on campus. A university is a centre for learning rather than a meeting place for romance and pairing off. By allowing unsupervised interaction between men and women students in university, we are indirectly encouraging campus violence. I will continue to press for the segregation proposal,” says K. Narahari, the Bangalore University Syndicate member who advanced the sexual segregation proposal.

However liberal educationists believe that such moral policing defeats the larger purpose of education, which is to help male and women students develop all-important life skills and work co-operatively in industry and the professions. Running two single-sex institutions on one campus is likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate gender and sexual disparities and tensions in campus India.

“Our education system is not designed to develop vital life skills such as gender sensitivity, sexual propriety, social interaction and effective communication skills of students entering university. Instead of imposing regressive rules and regulations and infringing basic freedoms, it would help if all students are given gender orientation courses before, or even while they are in college,” says Dr. A.S. Seetharamu, hitherto professor of education at the Institute of Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bangalore.

Yet while in developing countries with histories of gender discrimination and oppression there is a case for gradualism represented by single-sex education institutions, the most compelling argument for co-ed schools and colleges is that they represent a microcosm of the real world beyond institutional gates and boundaries. Co-ed institutions prepare — indeed steel — women in particular to cope and succeed. Mehani Hakim, a second year science student says she consciously chose to enroll in the co-ed Ram Lal College, Delhi, after having studied in a single-sex school, to help her prepare for life beyond college. “The purpose of education is to prepare us for life. And given that life is co-ed, an education institution should reflect the true flavour of life. Studying in a co-ed college helped me develop important coping skills for success in the workplace and life in general,” says Hakim.

Clearly there are compelling arguments on either side of the campus segregation and integration divide. Despite recent reappraisals and research in the West which has given a new lease of life to single-sex learning institutions, there’s no denying that egalitarian co-education is a prime cause of the material and technological superiority of the industrial West. When men and women study together they are not only placed on equal footing, they also learn mutually respectful cooperation in the broader national interest. On the other hand, given their long histories of gender discrimination and oppression, developing nations of the third world characterised by high women’s illiteracy also need to encourage single-sex institutions of learning to stimulate women’s enrollment and participation within education systems. In short, the need is not for either or, but for both.

With Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai); Autar Nehru (Delhi); Vidya Pandit (Lucknow) & Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)

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