The positives of co-ed & single gender private schools
Canada stands out for its range of private school program options – including schools that educate girls and boys separately or together.
While there has been a fierce debate over whether co-education or single gender schools are best, passions have subsided in recent years. Canada’s independent school world is evolving with broader contemporary society into more open, inclusive, engaged schools.
‘To each his or her own – or both’ is what heads of schools and independent school experts espouse, including Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS).
“What we want is a strong network of schools,“ Kee says, “with choices for students and families.”
Three out of four current CAIS member schools are co-educational day schools and/or boarding schools. But single gender education is very much alive and well, especially in major cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Sixteen CAIS schools across Canada are girls’ schools. Seven are boys’ schools, and one – Sacred Heart School in Halifax – is coordinate, meaning that it operates separate girls’ and boys’ divisions from grades seven through 12.
After a period of contraction in the 1970s, boys’ schools are holding their own across Canada.
Canada’s leading girls’ schools are firm and resolute in their social purpose. Martha Perry, Principal of Toronto’s St. Clement’s School and incoming President of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, exemplifies that spirit. “Girls’ schools afford an opportunity to be authentic”, Perry says, “to be yourself and fully participate in everything”.
Since graduating from St. Clement’s in 1985, Perry says she has gained a fuller appreciation of what the school meant to her. She entered SCS in grade seven and blossomed there, taking full advantage of the leadership opportunities in the relatively small girls’ school. “I emerged confident in myself and served as sports captain, but only realized its real impact on my life years later,” she recalls. “It let me be natural and really explore my interests.”
The relatively new Head of Crescent School in Toronto, Michael Fellin, is typical of the new generation of boys’ school heads. Keenly aware of the fierce competition and out-sized egos characteristic of traditional boys’ school heads, Fellin sets a completely different tone. Steeped in philosophy and religious studies and heavily influenced by his high school years at St. Michael’s Catholic School, he insists it’s all about forging deep relationships with caring teachers who understand boys.
Fellin espouses what is known as the new psychology in boys’ school education. “What it means to be a good man in this world matters to us,” he says. “Today, that includes expressing vulnerability and being authentic in your relationships.”
Traditional stereotypes about single sex schools are gradually breaking down. What’s better – co-education or single sex schools – is no longer the critical question.
Kee says the boys’ schools who are members of her organization exemplify the dissolving of those durable mental pictures. “Some boys do need a place of their own,” says Kee, “and those schools are making it possible for them to define themselves in terms of their passions.
“Today, they emphasize respect for yourself and others. They’re kinder and gentler places than before.”
A decade ago, a group of 16 CAIS coeducational schools, led by Guy MacLean of Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario and David Howie of St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg, collaborated on research in support of educating boys and girls together in independent schools.
This “education for the real world” initiative was a response to the flood of research being generated at that time in support of girls’ school education. Given the dominance of co-educational schools in Canadian independent education, however, that initiative gained little traction. Since then, heads and administrators in co-ed private schools have adopted a less strident, more nuanced message.
Changes in prevailing social attitudes tend to favour educating children in a co-educational environment. Gender boundaries are not only being blurred but fundamentally altered. Tam Matthews, Head of Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy, puts it this way: “It’s an inclusive world, and co-ed schools are best situated to foster the most diverse, inclusive relationships at an early age.”
Innes Van Nostrand is Principal of coeducational Appleby College and himself a graduate of Upper Canada College, a bastion of boys’ education. He says he sees a place for both types of education.
“What’s increasingly important is diversity,” Van Nostrand says, “including gender and a whole range of other diversities. It’s just hard to imagine gender not being part of that diversity in a school.”
“What’s best,” says Kee, “depends upon the child and the values of the family. Across Canada, we have lots of school options.”
Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., Director of Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax, is an author, education policy analyst, and former Canadian independent school headmaster. From 1997 until 2009, he headed two of Canada’s leading independent schools: Lower Canada College in Montreal and Halifax Grammar School.