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.