Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

Should we ban boys-only schools?

I’m often accused of making sweeping statements in my writing; as if one were always required to produce a table full of numbers and statistics to underpin one’s thoughts. On the contrary, theory is grounded in thinking – not just numbers and balance sheets and calculations. However, there is often an interesting intersection between what the theory proposes and what the empirical evidence tells us. The behaviour of the men who attend boys-only schools, and the cultural practices that are an indelible part of the boys-school experience, clearly highlight the problems of masculinity and male-centric and dominated spaces – as proposed in theory.

At the centre of the latest scandal involving a boys-only school, a father in the Free State has removed his 15-year-old son from the prestigious St Andrew’s school in Bloemfontein. This follows alleged abuse and bullying – the victim is alleged to have been violently attacked on more than one occasion. This story is interesting because the violence wasn’t merely confined to the actions of a few bullies; the violence took place during initiation rituals.  Initiation rituals, and the broader culture and traditions associated with boys-only schools, provide the greatest evidence of why we need to re-consider masculinity and how we see, educate and love men.

In such male-centric and dominated spaces boys are taught about what it means to be a man and how to behave and live as a man. Beyond promoting a culture of violence and abuse, the effect of institutional culture is to promote discipline, outdated standards of masculinity and heteronormativity, and subservience to the institutional culture. Instead of allowing young men to discover who they are on their own, a collective culture is forced upon them – one which suits their fathers, teachers and people who cling to gender essentialism. There is no space, no freedom to live as one truly is. In these schools, individuality dies at the hands of an institutional culture which values collectivism, muscle and toeing the line.

Kameel Premhid, an Old Boy from a boys’ school in KwaZulu-Natal, clearly outlines the problems of the institutional culture of collectivisation:

“Allowing for difference is important. And schools must be safe environments in which the right to be different must be protected. A failure to do so only engenders more problems. It incentivises underground activity which is itself risqué because boys do not want to be found out. Be that in something as serious as their sexual orientation or as unimportant as a penchant for singing classical music. Most of them know they have to lead a double life for fear of being outed – the start of a possibly unending round of psychological and physical torment.”

The ethical feminist Drucilla Cornell has developed the concept of the “imaginary domain” – the space in which one can claim one’s sexual and gender identity. In the “imaginary domain” exists the freedom of every person to choose how to live, love and be – away from the stifling gender constructs shoved onto us by society. This freedom is categorically important if we truly believe that people are equal and are ethically and morally allowed to determine the outcome of their own lives. Unfortunately, this freedom cannot co-exist with the institutional culture prevalent in boys-only schools. And the freedom to be as one chooses certainly cannot exist in a space where violence and abuse is utilised as a weapon to enforce power relations and collective subservience to the institutional culture present.

Unlike Premhid, who believes that boys only schools can change and serve as a means to challenge male violence, sexism and chauvinism, I believe that boys only schools are not transformable into spaces where freedom (the “imaginary domain”) can co-exist. This is because these schools are dominated by the like-minded – teachers and students who have grown up in a world where men have been denied the right to live free from the confines of society’s stereotypes and demands.

Where there is no difference, and difference is suppressed, how do we inculcate a culture of individuality and freedom?

Maybe the best way to ensure difference is to flood the halls of boys-only schools with young women. Maybe we need to start exposing pupils to ideas and ways of thinking which do not restrict them. We can begin to challenge the ideology of masculinity and what it’s doing to South Africa’s men. And while we’re at it, we can tell their fathers and mothers off for supporting a syndicate of institutions built on exclusion and restriction.

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    • Bubba

      Moan all you want, the benefits these schools deliver far outweigh their negatives and they aren’t going anywhere.

    • Gideon Joubert

      Fortunately you are not in a position to prescribe to me how I should raise my children and to which schools I am entitled to send them. A blessing indeed, since the last thing this world needs is proponents of the Nanny State to leap from their secluded bubbles in the blogosphere to actually attempt to affect the change they think we all desire.

    • Kanthan Pillay

      Who is the “we” you refer to if you write in your personal capacity?

    • Andrew

      The use of the word ‘ban’ in the title immediately gets people on the defensive. Instead of being ‘ahead of your time’, I suggest you would have fit in better with the Nats 30 years ago – just a different agenda, same zealousness

    • Alastair Grant

      Challenging stuff, as you can see from the preceding comments, Thorne.

      The underlying debate is about pressuring people to conform to some kind of standard, which its proponents regard as positive. Clearly, the proponents of boys schools (and the army, the church, the political party, the prevailing economic order) consider the values and behaviour they impose on their initiates to be… right. If you question their school (their army, church…) you question the fundamental values which they have built their lives around. Not comfortable.

      The mechanisms by which the group imposes its will on the individual, and the threshold for allowable deviance, are interesting. If you take our ruling party, for example, its members can get away with failure to perform and even blatant dishonesty, but there is no tolerance for disloyalty. The glue that holds all of these institutions together is loyalty, which is the suspension of critical thought (to some degree or another) in favour of accepted wisdom. They all share a common motto: don’t rock the boat.

      What makes the school debate important is that the decision to attend them, and to have this value system imposed upon you, is taken by your parent, not you. However, it’s an obviously successful formula – producing people whose values and abilities are a good match for the system they are entering, and so giving them a better chance of success in life – using the benchmarks of “success” that those schools propagate.

    • JohnbPatson

      I knew a couple of teachers who had been through the UK’s scheme to cut the number of single sex schools by merging boys’ and girls’ schools.
      The unanimously said it was great for the boys, whose academic results and general comportment improved significantly every time it happened.
      The other side of the coin was that it was terrible for the girls, with results, especially in maths and science dropping like a stone and participation in sport and other extra-curricular activities falling significantly too.
      There was also a significant rise in schoolgirl pregnancies at each school where it happened.

    • Wayne

      Our availability heuristic would make think there is a problem when there really isn’t. People do bad and evil things to each other. A dozen or so incidents of abuse don’t imply that there is a systemic problem.

      Even though I don’t have much incite into the matter of physical abuse at single sex schools, this article has done little to make me think we should ban boys-only schools.

    • Andrew Wright

      There is a simple problem with your proposal and that is this; girls benefit academically from girls only schools quite considerably, simply because there are no initial “boy-girl” relationships in their early years at high school. As a father of a 17 year old young lady, I am extremely pleased that I didn’t sacrifice her education to enable her to enjoy the “benefits” of co-education, no matter how useful/beneficial that may be!

    • Graham

      I do not agree with same-sex schooling. Will not consider it for my kids.

      A friend was bullied at a prestigious Cape Town college, and the only solution was to change schools.

      Bubba – mind expanding on the benefits of these schools?

      I personally see no benefits over other coed schools

    • Thijs

      A very confused piece.

      What does theory propose and empirical evidence tells us?

      You give us neither.

      At the same time you appear to be denouncing the very basis of scientific inquiry:
      to test a theory against empirical data.

    • Nduru

      I see the products of said schools are out in full force, Thorne. Rather illustrates your point. I went to an all-boys “rugby” school but will not be sending my son to one – for the reasons you outline and more. And as for the Michaelhouse boys I was in residence with at varsity: I have never met a more painful bunch in my life and it was not a pleasure to share accommodation with them for three years of my life.

    • Charl Coe

      What about ‘girls only’ schools?

    • Chris.k

      Perhaps South Africa is a statistical outlier because in the rest of the developed world the schools are already female-centric and the results for boys have been disastrous.

      Women telling boys how to be men is the same as men telling girls how to be women. What sense does it make ? What we do know is that in the rest of the developed world where the curriculum has been purposely tailored for girls while being taught by women, control and channeling of natural male impulses has been slowly eroded such that the boys don’t really know what they’re supposed to do to become men. What they have left the public education system believing is that they’re basically defective girls.

      Boys will be boys. That’s not a defense of improper behavior, it’s a statement of fact. The goal should not be to try to make the girls more like the boys but rather to teach the boys how better to channel their natural male aggression towards more productive ends. Suppressing it will not work. The solution employed in the U.S., the U.K. Canada, and Australia (among others) has been to drug the boys into conformity. Is that what you want ?

    • Chris.k

      Edit : The goal should not be to make the boys more like girls.

    • Momma Cyndi

      Do you honestly think that being bullied by boys in an all boy school is less traumatising than being bullied by girls in a coed school? You obviously have no clue just how nasty teenage girls can be. It is not the sex of the kids in the school that should be challenged, it is the culture of the school.

      Way back in the stone age, I went to an all girl school. We had sports days and school plays in tandem with our ‘brother school’, which was an all boys school. Those boys were in awe of us girls and were more likely to blush and stutter than they were to be violent or misogynistic.

    • Rick

      There is no chance of an objective debate on this as those from co ed schools will vote for what they experienced as will those in single sex schools.
      Points to consider are:
      Many teenagers from single sex schools are naive when it comes to understanding the opposite sex. Co ed schools undoubtedly result in more social interaction and mutual understanding because of the years spent together.
      Teenage pregnancies are a major factor and are probably why single sex schools were set up in the first place.
      It would be interesting to see the correlation between marraige divorce and the type of school attended. My guess is that those from single sex schools will have a higher divorce rate…..years of schooling in close proximity to the other sex versus occaisional social interaction must affect individual understanding of the behaviour, moods etc of the opposite sex.

    • Baz

      Any parent is entitled to chose what is fit for their children including a boys or girls only
      school. It normally comes with a price of not seeing their children make progress and
      if you want your child to excel in their educational path, the best way is private schooling. Since our current government schools are not on par with the rest of the world regarding a decent level of education. Said without prejudice.

    • aim for the culprits

      it is the culture, not the gender make-up that matters.

    • aim for the culprits

      The more ridiculous “accepted wisdom” is the widespread and sometime compulsory playing of rugby, hockey, cricket or any other activity where post-school participation is close to negligible! Prowess at sports that dominate school culture is part of the damaging influence.

      Why not learn sports and activities that one can take through life!

    • Bob Dole

      I went to an all boys school and remember the discipline..It was almost military , no questions asked. This has made me an efficient machine in the work place , but compromised my ability to be understanding and tolerant at an emotional level. Many of us who went through this type of schooling have excelled in business and corporate. But happy marriages have eluded more than 50% of us, speaking for myself and my schoomates.

    • Deefor

      Having endured 12 years in convents and just as long getting over the trauma of the oneconvent in particular, both my children have been put in co-ed schools and I have absolutely no regrets.

    • Rick

      A more important issue than co ed or otherwise is the socalled ‘faith school’ issue. Religious indoctrination is a serious social issue and religion should not be allowed in state schools except as part of history.

    • Emma Lousie Powell

      Thorne, I could not agree with you more bud! You keep writing what you are writing because one day- and it may not be soon – but one day you will end up on the right side of history! Hats off…keep challenging this stifling hetronormativity where-ever and how ever you can, and surround yourself with like-minded people who make you feel valued, supported and energised enough to keep being to small voice of reason!

    • J.J.

      How about LGBT people write about LGBT issues… and feminists write about feminist issues and heterosexual people write about heterosexual issues. How about NONE of these groups impose their views upon each other…?

      Thorne, do you have children in any of the schools you are criticising? Are you writing as a parent or on behalf of parents and if so how are you an authority?

    • MIke

      The people that run these schools could do something novel and actually watch over the boys at all times they have them in their care. Where are the adults that are paid salaries to “teach” these boys? It’s like Lord of the Flies, except the adults are just getting drunk in another building.