Single Sex Or Co-ed? Wrong Question!

There are no more “boy schools” left in Trinidad and Tobago. The old traditional “boy schools” like Queens Royal College, St Mary’s College, Naparima College, and all the other denominational “boy schools” are no longer male preserves. Most of these schools have a teaching staff consisting of at least seventy percent females- and young women at that. The future of these “boy schools” now rest squarely in the hands of these young female teachers. These schools should now be more appropriately called schools “for boys”.

In the 1960s when I attended St Mary’s College there was only one female member of staff. She was a part-time teacher who came in to teach us elocution and the habits of good “broughtupsy”. (She was an old lady who the priests violently protected from us miserable boys and so classes with her were a danger to our health.). Boys of my time in St Mary’s, QRC and lots of other secondary schools had the experience of being taught by men who were serious about the job of teaching and were also intellectually strong. They could also, at least some of them, play good football and cricket, as we found out when they played against us students.

By 1972 there were two or three permanent female members of staff; today the staff must be predominantly females as in all the other “boy schools” in Trinidad and Tobago.  In fact there are two “boy schools” in North Trinidad with female principals and vice principals. In one traditional “boy school”, a teacher friend of mine had protested to me that before the women came on staff,  there were two male football teams made up of staff members and infinitely more liming after school hours. The life of the staff has changed with the advent of a female teaching corps, many of them being women who tend to go home immediately after classes to take care of their families.  On the other hand, in some of these “boy schools”, women,  sometimes mothers of boys, were now managing groups like scout troops, previously the preserve of male teachers.

None of this is to deny the tremendous contribution of the women who have taught at these schools in the last three or four decades. What is does point to, however, is the different conditions that have defined the trajectories of boys’ schools as opposed to girls’ schools in the past few decades. It would surprise no one to learn that the culture of girls colleges like St Joseph’s Convent, Bishops Anstey High School, Naparima, SAGHS etc have remained largely intact- and even been re-inforced by the continuation of established practice of largely recruiting female teachers for the student body of females. The culture is re-inforced even further by the fact that many of these female teachers are past students of the school who serve as carriers of their schools’ cultural legacy and often bring extra zeal to the job.

On the other hand, with the feminization of their staff, the “boy schools” risk losing some element of cultural legacy and loyalty.

So today a “boy school” has become a dubious concept and it might already be impossible to replicate the “all boys” school of former times. It is worth noting at this stage, that we have had a pretty good and long tradition of co-educational secondary schools in Trinidad and Tobago. In Tobago, these would include Scarborough Secondary and Bishops High School while in Trinidad they would include San Fernando Government Secondary, Couva Government Secondary, San Juan Government Secondary, St James Government Secondary and Woodbrook Government Secondary.  We have also had St Stephens College and Iere High School as well as St George’s College.

My next observation is that the boys in the top “boy schools”  in Trinidad and Tobago have been under-achieving in academic performance for a very long time.  While their examination results have not been poor, there is evidence of  high underperformance when one looks at the total performance of the schools in terms of the percentage of boys achieving full certificates and the quality of their grades. It is therefore foolhardy to think that the answer to the underachievement of boys at new sector schools like Barataria East and West or El Dorado East and West would be solved by simply providing a same-sex environment. The problem exists as well at the very top “boy schools” with a same-sex environment. If the problem can be solved at this level, it may well provide us with some clues on solving it at another level.

The examination results from CXC and CAPE usually have the girls taking the lion’s share of the scholarships. This is a far cry from the 1960s when girls were totally out of the running, prompting the need to introduce something called a girl’s scholarship. In these “boy schools” today, teachers would tell you that it is very difficult to get the boys to take their academic studies seriously. In the traditional “boy school” where I taught in the 1980s and early 1990s, the boys were generally satisfied to simply pass their exams. The complacency made it very frustrating to teach them at Advanced Level. As I was about to leave that school, a decision was taken to bring girls into the Sixth form, a practice which continues today. Ironically, one of the arguments advanced then was that the girls would make the boys perform better by providing competition which would push the boys to want to work harder in order to out-perform the girls.

Recently, I had the opportunity to discuss the matter of underperformance with some senior boys from a top “boy school”  in Port of Spain. When asked if they admired students who do well in examinations and if getting good grades was a worthwhile achievement, they all said yes. Asked if they admired boys who worked hard in school, spent time in the library, participated actively in class, studied when the teacher was absent- they all replied ‘No’. Such boys would be seen as “fighting it” which is just “not cool”.

I wish to suggest that this culture is alive and well in all “boys secondary” schools of Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, I can recall only one principal of a” boy school” in San Fernando who insisted that the study ethic in his school was still strong.

Now herein lies a gender trap for boys in the school system. If we unravel it we may be able to move forward. Boys admire achievement but do not admire the set of behaviours that make for this achievement. There is a concept of being male which they have imbibed: Men must be cool, they must not be seen to be struggling with books and working hard. The boy who achieves is admired. He is considered smart. And since he was not seen sweating it out in the library or classroom he is admired as being cool for making the achievement look easy. By no means must one be seen as a nerd. So there is a strong anti-nerd culture among boys. Boys who are admired are the ones who are good in sports, music, athletics, and if that is combined with being rude to teachers or being anti-administration, then respect among peers is assured.

The nature of this gender trap is such that boys have bought into a culture of what being a man is all about – and that does not include soft things like devotion to academics. Do girls have this problem? It doesn’t seem so.  While boys know they would like to succeed and even do well, they have to achieve this by a kind of subterfuge. They have to study extra hard at home and then slack off in class. They may have to go for extra lessons. And if they end up in lessons with their peers then parents are wasting money because the same norms kick in. In extra lessons where some of these boys do try to work it is in situations with girls present in class. I know of no extra lessons teachers who have any same sex policy for their classes.

Boys who are well supported at home and who achieve high enough levels of numeracy and literacy at the end of primary school that gets them into a secondary school with a strong culture of achievement may survive, but the level of achievement in these top “boy schools” leaves a lot to be desired.

Those boys who did not attain a good foundation at the primary level and reach secondary school ill-equipped for the literacy and numeracy demands of secondary school are in big trouble. If the masculinity norms are about aggression, strength, materialism and even violence, then they do not have a chance because the kind of submission required to admit that you cannot read or write and spell, and that you should get help for doing these simple things, may prove too demeaning, especially if you are older than the other students in the class. In these schools, boys from a lower socio-economic background will take refuge in their sexuality, dress- thus the emphasis on brand name bags, boots, belts. Even when books are provided free of charge it is not cool to take books to school. Just to be seen walking around with such objects is bad for the image. Working on evenings to get income or staying away from school to do the occasional job brings in money which in turn commands attention from the girls.

Girls fall into the gender trap as well when they enter secondary school without the academic foundation to succeed. They, too, fall back on sexuality, clothes, hair etc. The fact that there is a greater focus on male underachievement and violence should not blind us to the fact that there is a large percentage of girls in secondary schools who do not attain even the minimum acceptable academic standards.

If the model of male and female that students adopt are powerful shapers of their behaviours and choices then any attempt to solve the problem of underachievement or violence at the secondary level has to involve confronting, systematically, the concepts of male and female into which they are socialized. In  Raising Cain, Dan Kinlon and Michael Thompson advance the thesis that emotional intelligence is not developed in boys. The prevailing culture teaches boys not to deal with feelings and emotions. They are kept illiterate in that sense, which is a crippling deficit that leads to violence and abnormal behavior, which, ultimately, reduce their chances of academic success.

Today, through brain-based research, we are learning a lot of things about the different ways boys and girls are equipped to learn. We know of two clear differences between boys and girls: the verbal abilities of girls mature faster than that of boys which is demonstrated by the fact that girls talk earlier and more fluently. Secondly, boys tend to be more physically active, moving faster and staying in motion longer. We know that the amygdalla of the female is larger than the male and this equips her to pick up a range of sensory data that males are oblivious to.

Richard Whitmire in a recent book, Why Boys fail, argues that the world has gotten more verbal and boys have not. They tend to fall behind and then the inability to read gets compounded as it gets tied up with problems of underachievement and general indiscipline. The authors put the blame squarely on the kinds of demands made by recent curricula and the inability of teachers to help boys become literate. While most girls are wired up to get a faster start on reading, with help the boys can catch up by later grade levels. Boys have a strong need for play and outdoor activity.

So in summary, I am positing here, firstly, that the teaching profession has been feminized and the single sex school for boys is a dubious concept; that boys in single sex schools have been underachieving; that one major factor in the underachievement of boys is their construction of masculinity; that we are clearer now about the differences in the way males and females learn.

The fact that there are more women in teaching is not likely to change soon and so any attempt to create same sex schools will have to deal with the fact that women are going to be in charge of and be predominant in schools set up for boys. Schools set up for girls will have predominantly females in their establishment.

The concept of masculinity, if it is to be tackled in the culture, should not be confined to the school curriculum. If we are to tackle the emotional intelligence of boys and the ways in which they perceive manhood, then there has to be a societal approach. The self-destructive habits of males in the classrooms are a mirror of the self-destructive habits of males in the wider society today. Women may be complicit in this process of male socialization as mothers and teachers. If this is the main factor at the root of male under-achievement and violence in the society, then same sex schools are an irrelevance.

The issue of how males and females learn is a contentious one.  The differences between males and females are always one of degree. It is not that males or females have a capacity that is completely lacking in the other. If the culture of a society emphasizes the use of a certain skill then all in that society will come to possess it. Psychology helps us to understand human potential; culture allows us to achieve it. Tweaking what we teach  and how we treat boys and girls in the s- regardless of whether they are same sex or co-educational.

What must be achieved is a strong school culture which engages with whatever negative norms exist in the wider society. The norms of the school must be consciously developed and supported so that the school provides positive spaces for self-fulfillment where boys and girls experience success in ways which confront the negative norms of the wider culture. If the internal culture of the school is weak and children experience failure then the negative norms of the wider society will become dominant.

The modern education system which evolved in the West during the nineteenth century was a result of the discovery of print. Printing made educational systems possible and necessary. The increasing literacy requirements of industrialisation made it necessary to have a literate work force. Social theorist Ernest Gellners argue that print was at the root of modern industrial society and made the modern world more egalitarian, made industrialisation possible and made the national education system administered by states necessary. Agreed-  universal education is a recent phenomenon, and girls may be more equipped for early text-based education, but the same print-based, literacy-based system of education has seen quite a few male successes in the last three hundred years or so.

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