Single-sex schools see a revival in mainland China

Single-sex schools see a revival in mainland China
Primary school students do exercises in the corridor and in a classroom as they avoid outdoor activities due to heavy smog, in Beijing Oct 11, 2014.

"NOW girls are excellent, they're even perfect and have brought a lot of pressure to boys ... They usually answer questions more quickly than boys in classes, leaving boys no chance. It seems that all the academic honors are going to girls while we boys are often thought of as being lazy and immature."

These are not the lines of the abused boyfriend from the recent Korean movie "My Sassy Girl" (我的野蠻女友), but the heartfelt expressions of a 17-year-old Shanghainese boy surnamed Hsu (徐) in an article written for the campus paper of Shanghai No.8 Senior High School (上海市第八中學), shortened to Shiba (市八) by locals. In his essay, he explained his reasons for applying for a boys-only educational experiment launched at Shiba in late 2012.

Despite having been a long-time institution in Taiwan and numerous other countries, single-sex education has recently experienced a major revival in China.

The experimental boys-only classes at Shanghai No. 8 Senior High School (上海市第八中學男子高中基地實驗班) are part of one such programme in which Hsu and 59 other boys successfully enrolled following huge competition from 210 other applicants.

The programme is sponsored by local authorities and customised by senior Chinese educators and academics in which the 60 boys are expected to study in an environment radically different from that of their peers in co-educational classes.

Each day begins early with a one-kilometer run, and this could be a very challenging experience for some Xiao Zu Zong (小祖宗), literally "little emperors" - a Putonghua term used to mock spoiled boys who are a product of China's one-child policy since 1979.

Physical exercise is not the only feature of this programme. The students enjoy a highly diverse course of subjects, including elective courses in topics such as fire safety, information technology and repair and maintenance of computer hardware, to name a few. Highly gifted students can also be accelerated to tackle challenging subjects such as higher geometry, science and mathematics in their first year.

Some critics among Chinese educators and media have suggested that the programme is: "a venture to revive the masculinity of Chinese males" or "a solution to boys' crisis."

According to a recent study by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, the academic performance of girls has surpassed boys in nearly every subject from third to ninth grade over the last two decades. During the same period, girls outnumbered boys in prestigious high schools, while 80 per cent of student union presidents among national government-supported experimental high schools are girls.

"Crisis, loss of masculinity and expressions of this kind might be an exaggeration, but somehow it seems true that Chinese women outshine men in many aspects nowadays, even at the stadium," said Shiba's Principal Lu Qi-sheng, who is the mastermind of this experimental programme.

To develop the experiment further, Shiba recently signed a cooperation agreement with the Sydney-based King's School, founded in 1831 by Royal Warrant signed by King William IV of England. King's is Australia's oldest private school and is a world leader in the education of boys.

"Because of the physical exercise, I've got bigger muscles, a stronger build, and even better, more glimpses and attention from girls of other co-ed classes," said Hsu.

Yin Jun-da, a member of the other all-boy class, said they can hardly do anything without being noticed on campus, because of their specially designed courses and their special uniforms.

"When we exercise in the morning, we easily catch the eye of other students, and we are driven to perform better," Yin said.

After their first year at Shiba, boys in the experimental classes achieved excellent academic results. Hsu's class achieved the highest average scores in four of six subjects, and the average score of the remaining subjects second.

The results were no surprise to the Headmaster of The King's School, Timothy Hawkes. Hawkes, who has authored several books on raising boys, says that educational research vindicates a widely held view that single-sex education can deliver improved learning for teenage boys and girls, particularly between the ages of 12 and 16.

"These years are when there is a maximum difference between the preferred learning style of girls as opposed to boys," said Hawkes.

As a strong advocate of boys education in Australia, Hawkes said he has seen far too many boys suffer from what he describes as "father hunger."

"Before the industrial revolution, boys worked closely with their fathers. They spent a great deal of time together and learned what it was to be a man,"said Hawkes. Then the industrial revolution separated sons from their fathers. This has carried through to the post-modern era of today resulting in too many sons being under-fathered," said Hawkes.

We need well-educated, thinking men with a good work ethic. The "macho" masculine stereotypes formed by mass media are not healthy for relationships, said a research paper presented by Sharon Lamb at the 118 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2010.

APA suggests that "superheroes,"whose overt masculinity is packaged by media and marketers, are not realistic role models for young boys.

"Today's superhero resembles an action hero who participates in non-stop violence. When not in superhero costume, these men, like Iron Man, exploit women, flaunt their bling and portray their manhood with high-powered guns," stated Lamb.

What the world needs now are boys who are not just buffed up with muscles, we needs boys who are brought up with the skills necessary to live in a group larger than one. We need boys who are informed, socially mature and sensitive to the needs of others.

"Most of my boys who participate in the 'Boys to Men' programme at The King's School are quite surprised to realise that many girls don't find 'macho' boys attractive," Hawkes said. "They prefer a well-educated boy with great interpersonal skills."

In his recently published book "Ten Conversations You Must Have With Your Son," Hawkes lists ten subjects that fathers should teach their sons. These subjects include, "How to forge good relationships" and "How to handle intimacy and sex." Much of Hawkes' advice centers on how to foster great relationships. The renowned Australian educator believes this to be the most important variable influencing happiness and well-being.

"I am seeing far too many 'one-year schools.' There are schools that only prepare their students for the one year after they leave school, e.g. entrance to university. This is a betrayal of our calling as educators," Hawkes stated. "We need 'eighty-year schools' - schools that prepare their students, not just for university, but for the eighty years thereafter."

Whether single-sex or co-educational, schools must join with the home to teach a curriculum of life skills including how to live in community with others. This is all the more important with good health, a harmonious family life and sound relationships being ranked as important to the quality of life in most homes.

"The traditional role of high schools is changing from dispensing knowledge to dispensing wisdom," said Hawkes. Knowledge is important, but so too are life skills. Failure to teach such skills will prevent boys from becoming productive workers, good husbands and great fathers.

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