Ain’t You Heard of My School?*

One of the ongoing debates in education is whether single-sex or co-educational schools offer students more benefits. Proponents of single-sex education claim that this setting allows members of both sexes to meet their potential without distraction. Those who take this position cite studies that show higher academic performance and fewer discipline issues when the sexes are educated separately. Proponents of co-education argue that co-ed schools more closely reflect the reality of the society students will join as adults. Because of that, it makes more sense to educate boys and girls together, so as to demystify each sex. What’s more, students in co-ed schools are exposed to a wider range of perspectives, which gives them a broader view of what they’re learning. Other points are made on both sides of this issue, and it’s not a settled one.

One thing seems to be clear in this debate, though. If crime fiction is anything to go by, there is no difference between single-sex schools and co-educational schools when it comes to crime. All sorts of things can go on in either setting.

Michael Gilbert’s Close Quarters, for instance, takes place in the fairly cloistered community of Melchester Cathedral. The cathedral community is still reeling from a death there the previous year, so everyone’s a bit on edge. When senior verger Daniel Appledown is accused of misconduct, the Dean of the cathedral asks his nephew, Detective Sergeant Bobby Pollock, to quietly find out the truth. But the notes accusing Appledown turn threatening; not long afterwards, Appledown is murdered. Now, the investigation becomes official, and Inspector Hazlerigg looks into the case. As it turns out, several people are keeping secrets, and more than one person could have had a motive for murder. And not everyone’s alibi holds up. The cathedral has its own single-sex (boys) choir school with a residential building on the cathedral grounds for the students who attend. So Hazlerigg visits the school and talks to the students and their choirmaster. In the process, readers get a look at what a choir school is like, and the boys are able to provide some useful information.

Much of the action in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school run by Honoria Bulstrode. When the new games mistress, Grace Springer, is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion, the police get involved, and begin to investigate. Then there’s an abduction. And another murder. One of the pupils visits Hercule Poirot and tells him what’s been going on. Her explanation, and some evidence she’s found, are enough to pique his interest (he also wants to ensure her safety). So he returns to the school with her, and begins his own investigation. As the novel goes on, we see the relationships among the people at the school (including the students). Readers also get some interesting insights into the girls’ school atmosphere of that time.

These first two examples take place in single-sex schools, and there are several others (right, fans of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock?). But if you think that co-education is the key to avoiding trouble on school campuses, think again. There are also plenty of examples from co-educational schools, too.

In Simon Lelic’s Rupture (A Thousand Cuts), for instance, recently-hired history teacher Samuel Szajkowski goes into the auditorium of the school where he works, and shoots a fellow teacher and three students. He then turns the gun on himself. Detective Inspector (DI) Lucia May is assigned to the case, and she spends time getting to know the students and the other faculty members. In the process, she learns that bullying is woven into the school’s culture, and that that culture had a great deal to do with the tragedy. This case is especially hard for May, as her workplace environment also perpetuates a culture of bullying. Among other things, the novel shows the deeply troubling side of some school environments.

So does Kinae Minato’s Confessions, which takes place in modern Tokyo. The novel begins as middle-school teacher Yūko Moriguchi meets with her class to inform them of her retirement. She has another agenda, though. As she tells the class, she knows that two of her students are responsible for the recent drowning death of her four-year-old daughter Manami. She doesn’t think the Japanese judicial system can be trusted to truly punish the students, because they are juveniles. So she has come up with her own plan. And although she doesn’t describe her plan in any detail, her intent is clear. After she leaves the school, another teacher takes over the class, and it seems that all will go back to normal. But things soon spin out of control, and it’s clear that life will never be the same. Along with the main plot, this novel gives readers a harsh look at middle school culture.

There’s another look at school culture in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which takes place on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. As the school year begins, Kindergarten teacher Bec Barnes is looking forward to a successful term. She’s good at her job, so there’s every reason to be optimistic. But things don’t work out that way. One of the school’s most influential mothers, Renata Klein, claims that Ziggy Chapman, one of Bec’s students, bullied her daughter Amabella. Ziggy says he’s innocent, and his mother Jane and her friends back him up. So there’s soon a serious conflict between people who support Renata, and those who support Jane. It’s not a simple matter, and it leads to all sorts of trouble. To make matters more complicated, the school is trying to put together a Trivia Night as a fundraiser. The event turns disastrous and has tragic consequences. As the story goes on, we get a close look at the way parents fit into school culture, whether it’s single-sex or co-educational.

And then there’s Simon Wyatt’s The Student Body. Fifteen-year-old Natasha Johnson attends a school camp at Piha Beach, not far from Auckland. One morning, her body is discovered by one of the teachers. Detective Sergeant (DS) Nick Knight leads the Suspects Team as the police investigate. The team’s job is to interview witnesses and create a group of viable suspects, and in doing so, they learn a lot about the school, the students, and their teachers. At first, there doesn’t seem to be a real motive, since Natasha wasn’t involved with drugs or gangs, and was well-liked. In fact, her priority was schoolwork. Little by little, though, the team learns that people are not telling everything they know, and that there are things at the school that are being kept secret.

See what I mean? When it comes to (fictional) crime, it seems that it doesn’t much matter whether a school is single-sex or co-educational. Things can go horribly wrong in any type of school.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ Be True to Your School.

18 thoughts on “Ain’t You Heard of My School?*

  1. Great post, Margot. I do love a school setting. There is also Nicholas Blake’s A Question of Proof set in a boy’s public school in the 1930s. More recently Tana French’s The Secret Place is set in an exclusive girls school in Ireland.


    1. Thanks, Christine. And thanks for these additions, too. You’re right that a school setting can really add to a story! I like the Dublin Murder Squad series, so I’m glad you reminded me of that. And Blake’s Nigel Strangeways series is good, too. Schools can pop up anywhere in the genre…


  2. One idea: coed schools, but some single-sex classes. Of course this is more complicated now because there are transgender students and people who do not identify as a gender, gender non-binary people.  Young people have expanded views of gender, some rejecting the concept altogether. Kathy


    1. That’s a well-taken point, Kathy, and I thought about it as I was writing this post. The concept of gender as binary and static is being challenged as we learn more about gender identification. And young people are definitely more aware about this issue than people have been in the past.


  3. I might have considered a single sex school at secondary level if I’d had a daughter, so that she might get a chance to speak up in class (bad memories of my own school days), but wasn’t keen for the boys. Mainly because I want them to learn to behave nicely with girls… I was going to suggest the Tana French novel as well, but will have to find another option. How about Elizabeth George’s Well-Schooled in Murder (boys’ public school) or Joanne Harris’ Different Class (boys’ grammar school)?


    1. Those are great suggestions, Marina Sofia. In fact, I was going to mention the George, but didn’t, so I’m especially glad you did. And I completely understand your feelings about single sex vs co-ed for your sons. I wondered about single sex schools for my daughter, too, when she was that age, but it wasn’t really an option where we lived at the time. It’s a tricky balance, isn’t it? How do you teach girls to be strong, to speak up, to develop themselves, and at the same time ensure that they can interact with boys, and vice versa? Not an easy choice for parents to make.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Gosh, I’ve actually read quite a few of these for once! Must seek out the Michael Gilbert though – I’ve loved the few books of his that I’ve read. Despite having worked in a boys’ school, I’m solidly behind co-ed – the earlier we all learn to cope with each other in life, the better we’ll get along! I found that the single-sex boys’ school too easily slipped into a macho culture.


    1. You know, FictionFan, I felt the same way when I taught in a boys’ school. It was definitely ripe for the macho culture. You make a strong point, too, that part of schooling is learning to work with others. After all, as adults, we need to work with people from different backgrounds, different places, and other genders and gender identities. So it makes a lot of sense to teach those skills as a part of education. As for the Gilbert, I do recommend it. In my opinion, he evokes the cloistered nature of the cathedral really effectively. And the mystery is engaging, too, I think. When/if you get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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  5. Margot: Sharon and I both went to Catholic boarding schools. The boys were at St. Peter’s and the girls at St. Ursula’s. We were both glad we went to boarding school. Obviously 50 years ago there were only boys or girls. Now it is somewhat difficult to separate out the experience of boarding school from single sex classes. It was not easy leaving home at 15 but I think it was better for me to have been in classes of only boys. I think the teenage boys of my era were less distracted and had no reason to show off when there were no teenage girls in class. It appears I am the only commentator who was in a single sex high school. I would be interested in the thoughts of others who had such an education.


    1. I was in a single sex grammar school for girls. It had its advantages, but our children went to coeducational schools and on the whole I think it is better.


      1. Thanks for sharing your own school experience, Christine. I think there are advantages to single-sex education, but there are also plenty of advantages to co-educational schools, too. My daughter went to a co-ed school, and I think it was the right choice for her.


    2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Bill. You have an interesting point about boys being less likely to show off if there are no teenage girls around. That’s been, in fact, part of the logic of single-sex education – there are fewer distractions. I found when I was teaching in an all-boys school, it was easier to keep the focus on the lessons (not that there weren’t other challenges!). And, although it must have been difficult for you to be away from home as early as fifteen, boarding school has its advantages, too.


  6. Margot, I’m unfamiliar with your examples and can’t recall anything from my own reading. There’s a couple on the TBR pile that may fit the bill – Danny King’s School for Scumbags and Thomas H. Cook’s The Chatham School Affair, probably both very different books.


    1. There’s something about that name – School For Scumbags, Col. I’m already intrigued, and I don’t know much of anything about the book. I’ve been wanting to read The Chatham School Affair, but haven’t (yet) done that. I like books that are set (or that were written) in another time, especially when the evoke the time and place well.


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