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Do single-sex schools promote greater achievement?

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Educators, parents and indeed the general public are expected to pay keen attention to an experiment which will begin in Trinidad and Tobago from September 2010, which seeks to address underachievement among our children.{{more}}

For years, educators and social commentators have been lamenting what is considered marginalization of our young males. Now one of our Caribbean neighbours, in a bold move, is attempting to do something about it.

Come next academic year, Trinidad and Tobago will begin to convert 20 secondary schools to single-sex education, in what is being considered the most radical shake up of its education system in recent years. From September, the 20 selected schools will be phased to single-sex institutions over a period of five years. All new first-year intakes will be entirely male or female.

The project has evoked great interest and discussion across Trinidad and Tobago, and is also being viewed as a test case for the Commonwealth.

The project comes in response to international research which shows that boys and girls perform better when taught in single sex environments. There is also evidence that in co-ed environments boys tend to fall by the wayside far more frequently than girls. We are very familiar with this phenomenon here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines where our girls, as a group, have been consistently performing better than boys.

Dr Casmir Chanda, a teaching consultant from the Commonwealth Secretariat who has been advising the Trinidad and Tobago government on the initiative, said: “When boys are in their own classrooms, they perform better. They write better essays and have an interest in literature and arts subjects. In single-sex schools boys come out of their shells – they express themselves more confidently,” she continues. “When boys are 11 or 12, some of them are quite shy and timid… the girls run the show.”

However, the programme is not being implemented just for the benefit of boys. Research has shown that both sexes perform better when kept apart. It is said that girls develop their interest in science, and better leadership skills when taught apart from boys.

Yvonne Lewis, Chief Education Officer in Trinidad and Tobago, said that the initiative is intended to improve education standards for both boys and girls. “It will address the underperformance of students by removing the distraction of the opposite sex and ensure that learning takes centre stage,” she explained.

The late Vincentian Educator Winfield Williams frequently made the point that the “chalk and talk” approach to education, popular in these parts, placed boys, whose learning styles favour a more interactive and spatial approach, at a distinct disadvantage. He advocated a single-sex educational environment in which curriculum and teaching styles could be more easily shaped to fit the needs of students.

This initiative is long overdue. Educators have long known that this is the way to go, but perhaps were constrained by cost considerations and a reluctance to admit that the switch to co-ed schools, which began about 40 to 50 years ago, was perhaps a mistake. The move to co-ed schools grew out of a concept that adolescent boys and girls needed to be schooled together because they had to be taught to live together in society. But what this notion overlooked is that boys an girls live and socialize together outside of schools in homes, churches and communities.

We applaud the Government of Trinidad and Tobago for taking this bold step. Let’s see what we can all learn from this.