Single-sex Schools in China

28th January 2019

Single-sex schools in China are rare, and there is a huge gap in the market. There are only nine single sex secondary schools in China (not counting unregistered schools). This is a near-absurd lack in a country with around 240 million school-age children.

Here we look at modern Chinese parents’ attitudes to such schools, which differ markedly from European attitudes. Many Chinese parents are curious about the advantages of single sex schools, and this has been borne out by their eagerness to take advantage of the surviving single sex schools in Britain, which they do in greater proportion to their numbers than other nationalities, with the exception of those from Muslim countries.

It is generally accepted among educationalists and sociologists that single sex schools help women “take their full place in a world which is, to some degree, loaded against them” (the words of the UK’s chief inspector of schools in 2017). In the UK, single-sex schools provide a small boost to the measurable results of girls, although not to those of boys. More importantly, a good girls’ school can, according to Wendy Griffiths, the Headmistress of Tudor Hall, help a girl “find her voice,” in a way that is harder to measure empirically and yet quite visible to parents and staff.

The trend away from single-sex education in the UK is, of course, driven by boys’ schools, which have spotted that girls get better exam results on average. This in turn has forced girls’ school to follow suit, since their market has shrunk due to the active recruitment of girls by former boys’ schools. Yet the market for single sex schools may well be saved and even boosted by China.

We have elicited opinions from many Chinese parents and researched online commentary on the subject. Our research is anecdotal rather than scientific, but it is clear that many Chinese parents feel that single-sex schools are preferable to mixed schools, and use similar arguments to (and are aware of) the research results of educational sociologists in the UK and the US. There is also of course a certain amount of uninformed opinion, but Chinese parents are generally more clued up on educational theory than their British counterparts. The arguments in favour of mixed or co-ed schools are also similar to those in the UK – schools should prepare you for the “real world”, where both sexes mingle, and should start such preparation from a young age.

Chinese parents who are interested in single sex schools tend to focus on those in the United States and the United Kingdom. There is little discussion about single-sex schools in China, but in our view this is not because they are not interested, but because there are no such schools: parents are therefore forced to look overseas.

Just as Chinese parents have opted to have their children attend bilingual schools where possible rather than send them abroad, so with co-ed education – if single-sex schools were available in China, they would take up that option. This is an opportunity for single sex schools in the UK who offer their expertise to Chinese partners for establishment in China.

China’s existing girls’ schools have unusual characteristics. No single sex school has girls under 12, unlike in Britain where many start at age five. One such school is Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ Middle School, which was originally St. Mary’s Girls School, founded by the American Christian Church in 1881; the Shanghai Chinese and Western Women’s School was founded by the Christian Southern Supervisory Association in 1892.

The two schools were taken over by the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government in 1952. Yet these examples are so few and far between that no pattern can be drawn.

Finding Chinese business partners or schools who wish to take advantage of this gap in the market is a different question. Many investment funds of the type that look for overseas partners are run not by education experts but by entrepreneurs or business people who excel in other fields than education.

There is also a surprising level of ignorance in such investment organisations, which tend to be male-led. Their expertise lies in fund management, finance and various other fields, and their opinions on educational theory are often similar to those of the “bloke in the pub” – i.e. forcefully expressed, but not grounded in research. There is a common theory, which this writer has heard voiced in formal meetings, that single sex schools are not “appropriate” for China, on the grounds that an over-educated girl will be less marriageable. This leads to the odd situation where consumers (middle class parents) are more knowledgeable about certain aspects of the product than the product investors.

Yet there are signs that this is changing. Although we believe Chinese students studying abroad do not aim for single-sex schools, the number of Chinese students who enter such schools in the UK is large, simply because there is a large number of Chinese students choosing to study in the UK.

According to our research, China, Hong Kong and Russia are represented most strongly among the international students in British schools, with China as the largest exporter of international students. According to 2015 data, one out of every five new students in the UK is an overseas student, and 15 per cent of students at famous schools such as Eton and Wellington are from overseas. Single sex schools such as Cheltenham Ladies, Sherborne Girls, Tudor Hall and Badminton are all examples of the popularity of single sex schools among Chinese parents.

These are the tip of the iceberg – the real market is the domestic one, and British schools are well placed to get involved.

According to Kristine Scott, Head of Education at HCR, it is striking that single sex education, in which the UK has been a World leader, divides opinion, whether it is beneficial (especially for girls) or outdated. As we head towards International Woman’s Day, we reflect on the value of single sex education especially at a time when there is a trend towards greater opportunities for girls and women.