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João António Monteiro Feijão

SCHOOLING TRAJECTORIES THROUGH SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION

2013-07-02
 

João António Monteiro Feijão

SCHOOLING TRAJECTORIES THROUGH SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION

antonio moreiro

 INTRODUCTION

In the international area, above all in British sociology, we find other studies focusing on the same subject. The authors who are most cited in this line of research, Lee & Marks (1992), note that the choice of these schools is made principally by parents with more resources and belonging to higher social classes. However, Miriam David (1997) criticizes studies in the Sociology of Education in that they only take into account social class as the principal and only motive for the choice. The author asserts that gender is an important variable to be considered. This factor appears for the first time in a study carried out by Gewirtz, Ball & Bowe (1997 in David, 1997) about girls and the education market. The study shows that the choice made by parents is associated principally with representations that parents make of the gender of their children, and that it is these representations that guide their choice. These authors emphasize the existence of two discourses regarding single-sex education: on the one hand, an emancipating discourse that based on the virtue of equal opportunities that this model offers; and on the other hand, a discourse based on uneasiness related to qualms about sexuality in adolescence (Watson, 1997).

The study of Lee e Marks (1992), points in the same direction, asserting that families who opt for this education model give importance to the school environment being protective and traditional, and valuing as well its gender organization in terms of the structure of opportunities that are more academically oriented, more equal, and more empowering, specifically with more advantages for girls. According to Jackson & Bisset (2005), 54% of parents of girls show preferences for single-sex schooling compared to 37% of parents of boys.

According to West & Hunter (1993), David (1997), and Jackson & Bisset (2005), families with boys choose coeducational institutions because they believe that these offer more advantages. Studies show that in a coeducational context, boys receive more benefits, since teachers pay more attention to them, and the presence of girls has a positive, civilizing influence. According to these authors, what it important for these families are the social advantages and not academic ones: what is important is the experience of living with the opposite sex because “it is more similar to society”, “helps boys to mature”, “if they are only children, the family learns to get to know the other sex” and because “it teaches boys to deal with girls” (West & Hunter, 1993). Jackson & Bisset (2005) and Lee & Marks (1992) say, moreover, that in cases in which families whose children are boys and that also choose single-sex education, the motivating factors are school performance and discipline.


In the case of families with daughters that opt for single-sex education, Miriam David (1997) states that this choice is justified by the fact that these families value this model of education. Lee & Marks (1992) describe this issue as being a traditional factor. Corroborating these issues, the study of Shah and Conchar (2009) on Muslim families and their choices of single-sex education show how this educational model is compatible with religious beliefs, and that parents are satisfied with the environment of safety and control of girls in such schools, thus preparing them for the real world. For their part, West & Hunter (1993) show how families chose the schools due to being satisfied with the outcomes they offer for their daughters, namely due to the fact that they develop more self-confidence while having the advantage of providing them with social opportunities. Similarly, Jackson & Bisset (2005) note that in choosing single-sex education for girls, families seek to offer them good academic performance, to give them opportunities for careers in science, and to permit them to not be disadvantaged by the presence of boys in the classroom, as happens in the context of coeducation.


As in the case of families with boys, one must recognize that there are families that do not agree with single-sex schooling in that, according to the perception of these families, such a system stimulates girls to destroy the traditional definitions of femininity. In this sense, parents choose coeducation because  they believe that sharing among the sexes is positive, helping girls in the development of their heterosexuality. Thus, the dominant discourses of femininity and many inequalities of gender are reinforced (Jackson & Bisset, 2005).


Some authors such as Watson (1997) and West (cited in David, 1997), note how the motivations for the choice varied according to the gender of the parent. While fathers emphasized the quality of teaching of the schools and the question of academic performance, mothers were concerned above all with the school environment for their sons and daughters: the question of safety and control for girls and of the environment with the presence or lack of presence of girls in the case of their sons (Watson, 1997). The study carried out by West (cited in David, 1997), shows that mothers were more involved in the school selection process. Fathers were less involved, but when they were, their presence was due more to the cultural and social context of the family than to its structure – for example, being a single-parent family (David, 1997).


According to authors such as Carl Bagley and his colleagues (2001), all of these studies have concentrated on the positive aspects of choice; that is, on what leads parents to choose a particular school. For these authors, very few studies have concentrated on the negative effects that these choices have on the education market; that is, on what leads parents to reject a particular school. It is understood that studying the rejection of a school is also a form of understanding the reasons for choosing particular schools. Thus, based on the project “Parental and School Choices Interactions”, the authors present the reasons of 81 parents for rejecting particular schools in the United Kingdom. These authors found two criteria that were present in the act of rejection: (1) social selection – selection of the human environment (kinds of teachers and students) according to social type (social class and ethnicity), and (2) concentration on academic questions/criteria that involve the reputation and physical environment of the school. 

According to parent responses, the first reason for rejecting a school is related to the time involved in travel and the cost of the same. Every choice process always involves a balance between costs and benefits, and in this case, parents decide based on the accessibility of transportation and on the distance between home and school. But the question of transportation is also justified by questions of safety, in that many parents fear for the safety when their children are obliged to use public transportation (Bagley et al, 2001).


The second issue in question in terms of the process of rejection is the kind of children who attend the school and the school’s environment. This issue points toward the child matching process, where the possibility of non-adaptation of the schools to the characteristics of the children and young people and the non-adaption of these to the school environment is a serious consideration for parents. A concentrated ethnic composition of a school is also a factor leading to rejection on the part of parents. This phenomenon, that Bagley calls racial-based choice, has to do with the fact that parents perceive that ethnic mixtures are not favorable to the integration and good school performance of their children (Bagley, 2001). Other factors related to the school environment, such as bullying, are also taken into account by parents. Obviously, parents want a school without a violent environment that disturbs their child on both personal and academic levels.


Third, teachers and the principal are the trademarks of a school. In terms of teachers, for parents, appearance and enthusiasm are essential. The principal is judged by parents according to his or her attitude. A principal who is pompous leads parents to immediately reject the school, while a principal who manages the school well, in the sense of making rapid decisions, understanding parents, and being accessible, impresses parents and fosters the choice of the school.
In fact, many parents seek a school environment that is caring rather than one that produces good academic out comes (Bagley et al, 2001; Morgan et al, 1993; David, 1997; Watson, 1997; West & Hunter, 1993; Jackson & Bisset, 2005; Shah & Conchar, 2009). However, many others seek good academic outcomes, and for this reason what they value is the academic reputation of the school, which has negative consequences resulting in the polarization of the education market (Dale, 1994).


In spite of all of this variety in studies of parental choice of schools, there is an aspect that falls outside of much research. According to Miriam David (1997), existing research does not provide information on the point of view of the children regarding the involvement of parents in the school and about the choices that parents make for their schooling. According to David, this constitutes a gap in the research on this topic.


In terms of methodology, we adopt a comprehensive perspective; that is, based on qualitative research. In contrast to the studies mentioned above, based using interviews as a data collection tool, this research focuses on data collection based on semi-structured interviews. In order to better understand the school environment, we also observed family meetings. The analysis of these interviews was carried out using structural content analysis technique, making it possible to deconstruct discourse in regard to the social actors’ choices and representations of same-sex education. Our unit of analysis contains four families (separate interviews with fathers and mothers), four 9th grade students (children of the selected parents), three tutors, and the principal.


Contrary to the studies mentioned above, that were based on surveys as an information collecting technique, this research was based on collecting information through semi-structured interviews. 

SOCIOLOGICAL PORTRAITS OF THE SEARCH FOR A SCHOOL WITH SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION: THE PERSPECTIVE OF FAMILIES

2.1 – The search for a good school: logic of the search and selection processes by families
We may first note that the families who sought these schools obtained information from different sources. Some individuals are familiar with the schools because relatives have attended them. Others are former students, while still others learned about them from magazines.


Most of the interviewees stated that these schools were not their first and only choice. Of particular note, in listening to the different families, is a concern for selecting the ideal school, their being aware that this choice could have implications on the future school trajectories of their children. The rejection of other primary and secondary schools was based on a variety of criteria, with particular importance for logistic factors (principally in regard to the distance between home, school, and place of employment that could result in undesirable amount of money and time spent) motives having to do with over-demanding and slow selection processes of other schools, or lack of interest in the program that these schools offer.


One aspect about which the families agree in their selection process is that all value private over public education. Even among individuals who studied in public schools, they today prefer private schools, saying that changes have taken place in terms of the levels of demands, disorder, and lack of rules of behavior and of social problems (such as bullying and teenage pregnancy) that take place in public schools as consequences of this lack of order within the school community. 

2.2 – The final decision: principal criteria for choice of schools
In spite of the fact that the search for a school took place in other schools in the Lisbon area, the families finally decided on this particular school. When we analyze the reasons for their choice and what most contributed to the final decision, we observe that there is a factor that links all others: the existence of a school program that represents a continuity between the family and the school in regard to a socialization process. A large part of the families seek this continuity between school and family, above all through religion. Many of the families wish their children also want training that integrates religion, and since the school has a strong religious component, this aspect is a determining factor for making the choice. Another determining factor is the tutoring system. The fact that the young people have someone of the same sex who accompanies them in each phase of their academic journey, as well as each phase of their growth as individuals transmits to the families a certain feeling of tranquility. Moreover, the families appreciate the integrated education provided by the schools; that is, students have academic training, but also training that helps them to grow as persons and world citizens. Allied to this training is the idea of discipline as an aspect that pleases and contributes to personal growth and for a greater concentration on studies. Single-sex education is not a relevant factor of choice for most parents; but it is rather a detail that contributes to the academic success of the students. For those who have experienced it, this model is important, above all if they had a positive experience when they attended schools that employ this model.


2.3 – Single-sex education: perceptions of families and peers
We noted above that the fact that a school has single-sex education was not a decisive factor of choice for the families studied. Nevertheless, single-sex education is seen as an added factor that contributes to the academic success of their children. All of the families say that this teaching model has advantages, above all for boys who, not having girls as classmates, can concentrate more on their subjects. The fact that the schools are exclusively for boys or for girls also has advantages, making possible a certain regularity in how teachers present their classes, in that they only have to deal with one of the sexes. All of the families agreed that they found no disadvantages in single-sex education, saying that all of their sons and daughters had developed normally and had no difficulties in their relations with persons of the opposite sex. In this regard, all of the fathers and mothers interviewed emphasized the importance of the family in providing means that allow their children to develop these social relations outside of school (many families stated that extracurricular, outside of school activities of their sons help in this task, with some referring to the existence of female cousins, sisters, and friends of sisters in their network of social relations that foster this task of socialization, and other families cited the fact that the students of the Mira-Rio School visited the Planalto School after class hours).

Both fathers and mothers of all families interviewed said that they were quite criticized by their peers – above all by colleagues in the workplace – due to their choice. Many said that their colleagues in the workplace thought that the school and its teaching model was old-fashioned, and that this was due to the fact that most of them had not had an experience with current single-sex education, still being “haunted by shadows of the past of other political regimes”.


SOCIOLOGICAL PORTRAITS OF SCHOOL TRAJECTORIES AND LIFE IN SCHOOL WITH SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION: THE PERSPECTIVE OF STUDENTS

3.1 – Statements about the school and the choice of their families
In regard to interviews with some of the school’s 9th grade students, we may state first of all that they appear to be very aware of what motivated their parents to choose the schools: being close to home, to be accompanied by a tutor, to be a school with a good reputation, having relatives who have attended the schools and having good experiences in them, and having good grades due to being an all-boys school were the principal reasons presented by the different young people as possible justifications of their families for having chosen these schools.


The majority of the students interviewed began their schooling at 3 years of age. Given this fact, the choice of school was generally that of their parents. However, when questioned about what they thought of the decision, all of them indicated that they agreed with the choice, saying that attending the school would have many advantages – especially in academic terms, helping them to have good grades and to be more concentrated on studies. In personal terms, they cited the religious component and the personal accompaniment that helps them develop as persons. In addition, the students see as important the strong links of friendship that are developed within the school between students and between students and teachers.

Although they are comfortable in the school, all of them stated that they have gone through some critical moments; above all between the 7th and 8th grades. The fact of not having girls in the school and the fact of being obliged to wear uniforms caused them some confusion, in that they didn’t see this happening in other schools or with some of their friends. 

All said that this was a temporary difficulty, and after talking to their families it soon became something about which they no longer thought.
Given that all entered the school at a very early age, none of them had difficulties in adapting, except for critical moments considered to be normal due to entry into adolescence. However, they mentioned that some students who enter at the 5th or 7th grade may have serious difficulties in adapting, especially those students who come from public schools where the system is coeducational. Almost all of the students described situations that of which they were aware of colleagues who left the schools, although they did not know the reasons.


3.2 – Perceptions of students regarding single-sex education
All of the students saw advantages in single-sex education. When they are asked about the disadvantages, the majority downplay them, saying that the advantages have much more relevance and are many more in number. The only disadvantage pointed out is that of socialization; but they say that this is merely an opinion of others outside the school. Other students, in spite of being well integrated and knowing that they can frequently encounter girls outside the school, say that they wouldn’t mind sharing only the recreational periods with girls, while the classes would remain separated within the school.


In terms of the advantages, with this education model, all of the boys say that they concentrate more and feel more at ease being with those of the same sex. On the other hand, the fact that it is a boys-only school allows them in the classroom to have an approach aimed directly at them, which leads to better grades.


Just as in the cases of their fathers and mothers, all of the students state that they have been criticized for attending these schools, above all by their friends who attend schools that are coeducational. Practically all of the students stated that they have heard criticisms from friends, criticisms in regard to their sexuality (“a school of queers”), or in regard to their social condition (“school for rich kids”). In all cases, the students stated that the comments never influenced their opinions about the school and the education model, and that they always attempted to show their friends the advantages of attending the schools.


3.3 – And after the 9th grade? Decisions of students (and of their families) about academic and professional careers.
The 9th grade is a critical time for decision-making in terms of the academic and professional futures of students. In this area, we found quite diversified choices, but in general all tended toward high school courses in the area of the natural sciences or in economics and social sciences.


The majority of students chose to follow their studies in the school. All who responded in this sense are aware of the importance of making the right choice, for this represents a great economic sacrifices for the families, above all for those that have more than child attending the school.


In general, the students showed themselves to be quite enthusiastic and anxious in regard to the International Baccalaureate, and state that following this path has many advantages. All emphasize the fact of it being a “course of excellence”, “recognized throughout the world”, and where “great results are obtained”. The students also feel that the IB “opens the door to the market”, “giving access to the best universities of the world”. Moreover, it is a “highly demanding course” that “fosters student autonomy” and “makes it possible to create work habits” that “prepare for the university”.


As for students who do not continue in the school, they say that the decision is generally that of the parents, saying that as students they would prefer to remain in the school “because they would like to”, but that the families decided that the IB would be too difficult academically for the academic performance level of their sons. Given that it demands an economic investment that later is not compensated with sufficient academic performance, the families end up deciding that not continuing is the right decision.


FINAL CONSIDERATIONS

Our research represents one more small step in fostering debate regarding single-sex education. We present a comprehensive perspective based on a methodology of interviews instead of a statistical survey. But this methodological choice does not presuppose results that are less valid that a statistical survey. On the contrary; it allows us to observe and to accompany with more detail singular cases of families who chose the Fomento Schools in Portugal. We do not treat the families as persons with a specific social background, but rather as individual persons with a diversity of trajectories and life histories, exposed to a diversity of social contexts and with a critical view of the social world that they inhabit.


There are still very few studies in Portugal dedicated to single-sex education. In the future, it should be an area about which it will be important to reflect – in the social sciences in general – above all in regard to its link with two subjects. On the one hand, the subject of gender and education, allowing us to re-think new pedagogical methodologies in the classroom and to better understand the gender differences and inequalities in school achievement. In this way, perhaps one can re-think policies in the area of gender equality and education, fostering the struggle against gender inequalities in the school environment, and creating awareness among teachers through continuing education in regard to this subject. On the other hand, one must emphasize the importance of the study of freedom of choice of schools on the part of families. This is also a subject of high relevance in terms of education policy, although it has inconclusive results, is very complex, and is treated very simplistically by the media. Families demand the right to choose the education that they desire for their children, and this is consecrated in the 26th Article of the Declaration of Human Rights. The approach of the right of parents of school choice should go beyond the production of social and school inequalities, the favoring of economic elites, and the issue of differentiation and style of life. Rather, it should be seen as a right demanded by families and as a reflection of discontent in regard to the way that the State organizes educational institutions; the way that it organizes school curricula, the way that schools relate to families, the way that subjects are transmitted by teachers, the contents transmitted in the classroom, in the encouragement of rules of good conduct, among other aspects. In this manner, this subject should constitute a leitmotiv in thinking about the efficacy of the State in the area of education. 

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