Teaching and learning involves more than just interaction between learners and their teachers. It is therefore necessary to understand each group involved in the learning process and how their participation in learning affects the overall education of learners.
Some issues in education arise because of the education policies put in place by those mandated to determine the course of education of a nation or by the cultural practices of a nation or religion. Single-sex education is a major issue common in Middle East countries which are predominantly Islamic; however, this issue has never received much attention it deserves especially in those countries that practice it.
It is often assumed that the objective of providing education to children is to prepare them succeed in their lives, yet most people are not conscious on what makes a child develop sufficiently through formal education. It has been hotly debated as to whether education systems or facilities need to be strictly single-sex or multi-sex. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries which strictly adopt single-sex education from elementary level to institutions of higher learning.
Single-sex/single-gender education refers to an education or school system where male and female learners learn in separate classes (Joshi, Leonard & Sullivan, 2010). This could be in separate schools or buildings. Single-sex classes have been adopted in many regions across the globe and are largely based on tradition and religion of the cultures where they exists (Sullivan, 2009).
Single-sex education in Saudi Arabia
Most schools in the Middle East are single-sex schools. In such instances, each school admits girls or boys exclusively. This is common in Saudi Arabia where I practised as a teacher for three years.
Influence of religion on Saudi Arabian education system
In Saudi Arabia, Sharia is the law, and therefore, learners go to sex-segregated public schools since Islamic religion is against social interaction that occurs between women/girls and male non-relatives, particularly between those are who so far not married.
In Islam, ensuring that girls are not seen by men is a virtue and is seen to encourage modesty and respect, and helps achieve honour within a family (Dilek, 2000). The country follows Wahhabism interpretation of the religion which is well-known for its keen observation of segregation of sexes.
In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Education ensures strict separation between boys and girls in both public and some private schools. All mainstream as well as government funded schools are single sex throughout the country, and are guided by Islamic religious rules. In this country, it is even wrong for boys and girls to swim in the same swimming pool.
Segregation policy of Saudi Arabian education
According to the policies (Article 155) of the Ministry of Education all learners from four years and above have to attend single-sex classes (Johnson, 2010). The policy outlaws combining of boys and girls in single classrooms in public schools, and all schools in Saudi Arabia which operate under the Sharia law or are government funded. It is only kindergartens and nurseries as well as foreign international private schools where mixed-sex classes are allowed.
This segregation is founded on Islamic religious pillar which recognizes that each gender was assigned different responsibilities by God, and therefore, should be provided with education that suits the gender roles (Hamdan, 2005). In addition, they have to be taught by a teacher of the same sex. This also applies to learners in international schools which are funded either fully or partially by the Saudi Arabian government.
According to Johnson (2010) the decision to include international schools under the segregation policy was announced in the Saudi Gazette in October 2010. This came about as a result of the increasing number of learners of Saudi origin joining international schools in the country. The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education ensures that these schools adhere to regulations as well as Islamic principles and practices.
Single-sex classes and mathematics curriculum
Single-sex education system formed on the basis of religion is based on the idea that there are differences in males and females which make men more suitable for particular hard tasks than women. As a result, males would generally perform better than women in mathematics, chemistry, physics, geography, as well as, arts education.
On the other hand, females are believed to perform better in biology, languages as well as handicrafts as compared to males. These stereotypes discourage female learners from pursuing physics and mathematics subjects as well as related courses when they join institutions of higher learning.
Influence of religious segregation on mathematics and science subjects
Since girls and boys brains develop in different trajectories, single-sex education requires mathematics curriculum that adopts different teaching strategies for all-boys classrooms and all-girls classrooms. However, few educators including those in Saudi Arabia have acquired formal training to apply gender-specific teaching techniques, meaning that they may not provide education that specifically benefits the gender they are dealing with. This means that those in charge of developing mathematics curriculum have to produce curriculum that takes into account the learning differences that exist between boys and girls, and gives confidence to girls in mathematics and sciences.
Stereotypical view of mathematics
According to Novotney (2011) previous studies have proved that girls do not trust their ability to build up their mathematics skills when faced with difficult mathematical problems. This comes from the belief created in them when establishing single-sex schools, that girls have lower abilities in mathematics and science than boys.
In other words, girls in single-sex schools have stereotypical view of mathematics. In Saudi Arabia, girls are taught strictly by female teachers, who might have acquired the belief that science subjects and mathematics are masculine. This means that they also transfer knowledge limited to their capacity and perception of what girls ought to know in those subjects.
Reduced motivation and confidence in mathematics
Since girls do not learn with boys in the same classroom, they lack the spirit of positive competition to help them improve their knowledge in mathematics, and hence their grades. Besides, girls in a pure girls’ school do not have the boys, whom they believe are better than them in mathematics, to encourage them to develop positive attitude towards mathematics or help them develop confidence in solving complex tasks in Mathematics.
Smyth (2010) asserts that boys contribute greatly towards classroom interaction. This implies that they are often unable to develop aspirations and self-esteem in mathematics and science subjects, especially in education systems which are founded on the idea that girls have lower ability to perform in these subjects. According to Smyth (2010) previous studies have shown that girls tend to view mathematics and physics as masculine, and this instills fear and negative attitude towards the subjects in them.
Significance of single-sex classes to education
Sex stereotyping and discrimination
Single-sex classes is of real concern as it amounts to gender discrimination. It is a violation of learners’ civil rights on the basis of sex. Both boys and girls are affected by single-sex classes although girls are more disadvantaged. Previous studies have shown that the strict separation of sexes in schools or classes leads to sex stereotyping as well as sex discrimination which in turn affects learners’ academic achievement. Separating girls and boys generates disdain as well as fear between them, and therefore, prevents cross communication.
Low achievement in mathematics among girls
More importantly, it decreases the level of learning especially in female learners, in mathematics and science subjects. Science and mathematics achievement have become significant indicators of national economic as well as political strength (Stanberry, 2010). Smyth (2010) reports that there are usually no gender disparities in mathematics among children who have not joined school; however, this only occurs in middle school years onwards.
Gender imbalance in the society
In an education system where single-sex classes are made mandatory because of the belief that girls have lower abilities in mathematics, and science subjects, as well as, to preserve cultural values, girls tend to pursue arts courses and courses related to their gender roles in that particular society. This leads to low level of participation of women in technical fields of study and jobs, and hence, creating gender imbalance between men and women.
In such societies, women are not empowered to achieve their maximum potential. Girls are majorly given education that corresponds to their gender roles in that society, which are associated with traditional and religious teachings of that society. In Saudi Arabia for example, the education and training provided to girls and women ensures that their level of competence is always inferior to that of men.
As a result, they mostly occupy subordinate positions in workplaces and leadership positions since they often have second-rate qualifications to their male counterparts (Hamdan, 2005). This is because the teaching contents have been structured to preserve the country’s Islamic foundations and not to empower males and females equally. Such an education system leads to few women in fields such as engineering, medicine, law, dentistry, statistics and such like high profile careers.
Relationship problems at workplaces
Students who graduate from single-sex classrooms such as those in Saudi Arabia are expected to work side-by-side with those of the opposite sex. This type of education limits their ability to work cooperatively as well as to co-exist successfully with colleagues of the opposite sex (Daly, 1996).
High cost of operation in schools and education systems
Gender segregation in the education system means that schools, especially private and foreign international schools have to spend more money to provide learning resources as well as salaries for additional teachers. To provide adequate and quality education to learners, it means schools have to separate mixed communal facilities like libraries as well as playgrounds. This increases the operation costs for schools and lowers economic efficiency in education systems and schools.
To overcome these disparities that occur in single-sex education, co-education should be adopted to improve education in parts of the world where single-sex classes are implemented. Sex differences in achievement should not be used to adopt segregation in learning institutions (Stromquist, 2007).
The American Council on Education believes that there is less academic gap between girls and boys in terms of their achievement (Stanberry, 2010). Mixed-sex classes would help open the minds of learners and remove the perceived differences between the sexes. This would encourage girls to compete boys at all educational levels and fields. Mixing boys and girls in one classroom would encourage girls to perfect their abilities in subjects considered to be masculine. Again it would also help achieve equality between the sexes in education.
In the past years, educational reforms in girls’ education in Saudi Arabia have majorly focused on improving the teacher-student ratio, infrastructure and increasing the curriculum content. However, there is a gap between the type of skills offered through the curricula of public education for females and those required in the labour market.
Thus, it is important to improve the curricula for girls to make it same level to that used to educate boys. They should be enabled to perform in mathematics and science subjects as well as in related courses just like boys.
One way to improve their achievement in the perceived masculine subjects and course is to provide teacher training that is gender-specific. This would promote the use of gender-specific teaching strategies to improve learning of mathematics and science subjects among the girls of Saudi Arabia. As a result, this would improve equity outcomes in education allowing for girls’ further training and productivity (Almunajjed, 2009).
In addition, it would be more appropriate to include both male and female teachers in all-girls and all-boys classrooms so as to remove the stereotypes as regards science subjects and mathematics. Well-trained male teachers would help bridge the academic gap that exists between boys and girls in girls’ schools.
Finally, education systems which adopt single-sex classes need to establish counseling and guidance sessions to help both boys and girls overcome stereotypes, and to encourage them improve their performance in subjects perceived to belong to the opposite sex (Norfleet & Richards, 2003).
Single-sex classes can be effective in helping learners achieve their academic aspirations and full potentials if properly implemented. However, this effectiveness depends on the basis of its formulation. Single-sex classes established to preserve the cultural values of a society may disproportionately disadvantage girls in that society. It is therefore necessary to ensure that girls are offered equal learning opportunities as boys, and that proper teaching strategies are adopted to improve their learning in science subjects and mathematics.
Almunajjed, M. (2009). Women’s education in Saudi Arabia: The way forward. Riyadh: Booz & Company Inc.
Daly, P. (1996). The effects of single-sex and coeducational schooling on girls’ achievement. Research Papers in Education, 11: 289-306.
Dilek C. (2000). Virginity tests and artificial virginity in modern Turkish medicine. In Ylkkaracan, P. (Ed.) Women and sexuality in Muslim societies. Istanbul: Women for Women’s Human Rights.
Hamdan, A. (2005). Women and education in Saudi Arabia: Challenges and achievements. International Education Journal, 6(1): 42-64.
Johnson, R. (2010). Single sex education for expatriates in Saudi Arabian financed schools. Retrieved from http://www.moveoneinc.com/blog/relocations/single-sex-education-for-expatriates-in-saudi-arabia/
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Norfleet, J. A. & Richards, H. (2003). Escaping stereotypes: Educational attitudes of male alumni of single-sex and coed schools. Psychology of Men and Masculinity 4: 136-148.
Novotney, A. (2011). Coeducation versus single-sex education: Does separating boys and girls improve their education? Experts on both sides of the issue weigh in. American Psychological Association, 42(2): 58.
Smyth, E. (2010). Single-sex education: What does research tell us? Revue francaise de pedagogie, 171: 47-55.
Stanberry, K. (2010). Single-sex education: The pros and cons. Retrieved from http://www.greatschools.org/find-a-school/defining-your-ideal/1139-single-sex-education-the-pros-and-cons.gs?page=2
Stromquist, N. P. (2007). The gender socialization process in schools: A cross-national comparison. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001555/155587e.pdf
Sullivan, A. (2009). Academic self-concept, gender and single-sex schooling. British Educational Research Journal, 35(2): 259-288.