France, that bastion — if not Bastille — of egalité, has its own debate on single-sex versus co-ed schooling, to judge by a recent opinion piece in Le Monde.

The writer notes that the subject is currently much dicussed in France. He points out that number of British schools have reverted to education organised on single-sex lines, and that a recent report in a French journal (l’Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Économiques) concluded that mixed-gender classes were having no discernable effect on recognition of male-female equality.

On the contrary, Marie Duru-Bellat, a researcher at Sciences Po, has called co-ed classrooms a daily “theatre for reproducing, or even erecting, stereotypical images of the social roles of males and females,” where the “ingrained learning, pre-established by the parents’ well before and during the years of schooling, finds itself reinforced in the co-education school.”

Why, with equal skills, opportunities and affinities is there not a more consistent outcome in gender terms for the same course of studies? asks Duru-Bellat. She pins responsibility on the teachers who, by their different demands and attitudes towards their boy and girl students, help to reinforce gender stereotypes. She takes the example of scientific subjects.

Unconsciously, there will be more attention and greater rigour shown by teachers towards the boys on the grounds that they have a potential that it’s necessary to bring out. In contrast, less attention is given to the girls.

Increasingly, the boys are reinforced in the idea [that they have] a natural leaning towards these disciplines while the girls [become] doubtful. The researcher offers the hypothesis that the careers which follow are more brilliant for the boys while the girls are less encouraged to succeed. It’s also the way the cycle of “male dominance” replicates itself. In single-sex classes this difference in treatment is absent and the girls are comfortable with succeeding fully.

Duru-Bellat’s research showed that in mixed groups male and female stereotypes had a greater tendency to assert themselves. The girls sought to avoid confrontation and rivalry with the boys, the latter exercising a form of moral pressure, intimidating them and curbing their will to succeed. However, the boys themselves were likely to achieve poorer results since they tended to adopt a macho, offhand approach to schooling.

On the other hand, in the single-sex schools, neither sex has this problem in choosing educational paths which are not necessarily related to their stereotype.

The researcher arrives at the conclusion that co-ed schooling has not been sufficiently thought through to fulfil its goals. Its simple implementation has not produced the anticipated results. It is necessary, therefore, seriously to consider a return to single-sex schools, but a return that is controlled, phased in and runs to schedule. Otherwise, this will again end up asserting that there is a difference rather than a distinction between the sexes such that each sex deserves a different education.

(Original article by Abdel Pitroipa, Le Monde, 17 August 2010. The post above is based on a translation by Michael Moynihan)

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet