The ongoing debate about its merits and demerits

BY Goolbai Gunasekara

This seems to be an ongoing discussion with opinions changing often enough to make one wonder if the question is worth discussing – or whether education should be imparted in the manner that’s most acceptable to the country?

Obviously, Islamic nations would prefer to educate girls separately. In more liberal societies, coeducation is the norm. And yet, schools that cater to the upper classes in both Eastern and Western countries remain non-coeducational.

Schools such as Eton and Harrow remain strictly boys’ enclaves. In the US, some colleges among the ‘Seven Sisters’ like Wellesley are steadfastly feminine… unless there has been a recent change.

The top local schools in Sri Lanka are also non-coeducational – viz. Bishop’s, Ladies’, Visakha, Methodist, Royal, S. Thomas’, St. Joseph’s St. Peters etc.

My own opinions don’t favour coeducation but this is only a personal preference. Predictably, my university education was at an all girls’ college although there was enough contact with boys to make life interesting.

The advantages and disadvantages seem to weigh heavily in favour of coeducation; so here are a few arguments for and against the matter.

It’s felt that mutual respect develops if children study together. This works both ways. It can also cause a lack of it. In Asian countries, girls often do better academically than boys. Why is this so?

The foreign principals of international schools in Colombo have told me that they put this down to the fact that Asian mothers coddle their sons but not daughters. Ergo, daughters have a much stronger work ethic.

My experience shows that a majority of annual prizes went mainly to girls at an international school during my tenure as its principal but I don’t have statistics for other schools.

Psychologists feel coeducation improves the thinking of both sexes. Certainly, the sexes have different thought processes, which may result in a happy amalgam. Ideas may be enhanced when the sexes are in closer contact.

Coeducation is more economical, says the Department of Education. Of course, it is; but if anyone visits a government school in Sri Lanka, they will see some strange coeducational practices. Girls sit on one side of the classroom and boys on the other. Girls only visit the toilets in twos.

There is not much chatting during the intervals as girls are thought to be ‘fast’ if they relate to boys. Dialogue between the sexes isn’t encouraged. This was the scene about 10 years ago. I wonder if it has changed?

People feel that gender equality improves under a coeducational system. That is certainly so.

Boys realise that girls are as good as them in most aspects of school life. Superiority complexes of men are nipped in the bud since they see from boyhood that girls are as skilled academically as them… and both sexes have their special skills.

Stereotyping girls as the ‘weaker sex’ only works in sports where obviously, a girl can’t play football in a boys’ team! However, girls are now playing cricket and football with each other, and netball has become a mixed sport. Boys have a muscular advantage – that is all.

Healthy competition between the sexes is useful and I agree that’s an advantage.

There are the serious achievers of both sexes who have mutual respect for each other. In international schools, there is a far healthier attitude to friendship between boys and girls. Romance is not on girls’ minds – especially if they have been in class with the same set of boys since they were toddlers. They can become good friends without any overtones.

In the US, many universities allow boys and girls dormitories in the same buildings. Girls do not share rooms with boys but apparently, it is considered a safer situation for them to be around. Gender equality is a popular concept these days – and all this togetherness makes it inevitable.

But as I said earlier, I would not like coeducation for myself. Boys can be a distraction. They are certainly noisier. Here again, the pundits tell us that boys automatically tone down in front of girls. I am far more comfortable in an all-girl atmosphere. I find that girls make friends with each other faster than with boys. Boys probably feel the same way too.

Maturity-wise, girls have the lead. A girl of five is more mature than a boy of that age. The two sexes then catch up with each other at about 13. I notice that at this point, girls forge ahead – becoming conscious of their femininity and generally being attracted to older boys. Boys catch up around 18 and the two sexes enter adulthood fairly evenly matched.

These figures are my own. I wouldn’t dare debate them with an expert. But I must reiterate that if it was left to me, I would not choose coeducation for myself or girls. My reasons will follow…