Chapter 9

Fears, Fantasies and Division in Single-Sex Schools

Anxiety and fantasy do not only affect behaviour in schools, they affect how educational issues are debated. Some topics are much harder than others to discuss rationally and of these the merits and effects of single-sex or coeducational schooling is perhaps the most volatile. As a 'debate' it re-surfaces regularly but with little resolution because, perhaps more than even most other educational subjects, it is prone to intense emotional feelings which override the pull or even the desire for evidence (Billig, 1989). Like popular racism it is a turbulent, polarized discourse where personal conviction rules. Many otherwise generally well-informed individuals insist that coeducation is good and progressive whilst single-sex schooling is bad and reactionary and will entertain no evidence which does not correspond with their own experience. Moreover, there is now a widening gap between public and professional opinion on this topic, with the public being nearly universally in favour of coeducation whilst a growing number of professional educationalists have returned to thinking well of single-sex education. This is quite a U-turn and largely the result of the introduction of league tables which consistently show how well single-sex schools do, particularly day schools for girls. Although undoubtedly flawed in many ways, the tables have at least put academic performance, rather than various aspects of the 'hidden curriculum', back at the top of the agenda.

The purpose of this chapter is not to review the evidence for or against either type of schooling but to look at how the debate has been conducted, what it illustrates about the processes of polarization around gender and sexuality in schooling, and at the unconscious elements and fantasies which underpin it. It argues that the deep structure of the debate is to serve as a defence mechanism which aims to suppress the subversive potential of

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