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Single-sex education for girls: what the research shows


While no individual study can give a definitive statement about whether girls receive a better education in single-sex or co-educational schools, a cumulative picture is formed when many studies are analysed together. Below is a snapshot from the research literature, which demonstrates the many and varied benefits of single-sex schooling for girls. All studies selected were published in 2003 or later. The source of each study can be located by using the reference list below.

Academic benefits

Several studies, authors and academics have indicated that single-sex schools provide girls with the best opportunity to reach their full academic potential.

Girls achieve highly in the middle years

  • Alliance member schools are already well ahead in achievement at Year 7, and display faster growth than students generally do between Years 7 and 9 (ACER, 2008, p. 25).
  • A British study found ‘results consistently indicate that single-sex schooling leads to higher progress from Key Stage 3 to General Certificate of Secondary Education’ (students aged 14 to 16 years). (Malacova, 2007, p. 253).

Outstanding results in senior school

  • Girls attending Victorian Alliance member schools in general, produce almost three times the proportion of very high (40+) Study Scores than girls at non-member schools. These results are also reflected in other Australian states. In New Zealand the rate of achievement of outstanding scholarships in Alliance member schools is almost three times the national average (ACER, 2008, pp. 12-13).
  • Bradley, in her American PhD dissertation concluded that ‘the single-sex environment provides females with the best opportunity for academic achievement’ (Bradley, 2009, p. 119).
  • Although only 5% of girls attended schools belonging to the UK's Girls' Schools Association (GSA) in 2012, they achieved 25% of all Physics A* grades awarded that year (GSA, 2013).

Girls in single-sex schools are highly likely to enter university

  • Girls in Alliance member schools achieve high tertiary entrance scores. In Victoria 36% of tertiary entrance scores (ENTERs) are 90 or more in Alliance schools. In South Australia, 52% of girls at Alliance member schools gain university entrance scores of 90 and above (ACER, 2008, p. 23).
  • A New Zealand study found that ‘the likelihood of gaining university entrance qualifications … increased in girls’ only schools’ (Shulruf, Hattie & Tumen, 2008, p. 627).

Girls accomplish high results in individual subjects

  • In NSW, girls in Alliance member schools exceeded the state mean in the seven subjects which were chosen for analysis: English, Mathematics, Business Studies, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Modern History. The highest performing member schools are more than 10 points above the state mean in all subjects (ACER, 2008, p. 16).
  • A study of the status of women in science in Australia noted that ‘girls perform better in science in single-sex schools, especially when science and mathematics are compulsory subjects in high school’ (Bell, O’Halloran, Saw & Zhao, 2009, p. 36).

University study shows girls benefit from single-sex environments

  • An experiment undertaken at Essex University, a co-educational university in the UK, found that girls randomly assigned to all-female classes in their first year were 7% more likely to pass their introductory economics course than girls in co-ed classes. They also scored 8% higher on their final grade and 10% higher in their required second-year courses, despite only attending single-sex classes in their first year (Booth, Cardona-Sosa & Nolen, 2013, p. 3).

Risk-taking and healthy competition

Australian academic Alison Booth and her British colleague Patrick Nolan explored whether gender differences in risk attitudes were influenced by the environment or largely inherent. They conducted two studies in 2009 and found that:

  • ‘The bulk of our evidence suggests that a girl’s environment plays an important role in explaining why she chooses not to compete. We have looked at the choices made by girls from single-sex and co-ed schools and found that there are robust differences in their behaviour: girls from single-sex schools behave more competitively than do coeducational girls’ (Booth & Nolan, 2009b, p. 20).
  • ‘Single-sex environments are likely to modify students’ risk-taking preferences in economically important ways. This suggests that observed gender differences in behaviour under uncertainty found in previous studies might reflect social learning rather than inherent gender traits’ (Booth & Nolan, 2009a, p. 1).

Therefore single-sex schools influence girls to be more competitive and less risk-averse than girls in coeducational schools . Risk taking and competitive traits are advantageous skills for leadership and many careers. Girls feel empowered to behave in these ways without the presence of boys.

‘Gender atypical’ subject selection

Girls at single-sex schools are more likely than girls at co-ed schools to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at school and university and to pursue careers in these areas. 

  • In 2012 the British Institute of Physics found that "girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls' school rather than a co-ed school" (p. 7).
  • In 2010, Tully and Jacobs noted that 22% of female students in New South Wales attended a single-sex school, but that 40% of female engineering students at the University of Technology in Sydney were from girls' secondary schools (pp. 458, 463).
  • Schneeweis and Zweimüller (2012) showed that when a female studies in a class with a higher proportion of females, she is more likely to choose to study in a technical school later on. 

Tully and Jacobs (2010) concluded that the "culture of a single gender school may provide a unique socialisation process, which allows a young woman the freedom to reach beyond stereotypical career expectations" (p. 463). Furthermore, the "personal attributes of the teachers, most notably their encouragement, care and availability, appeared to motivate these female students from single gender schools to excel" (p. 464).

Alice Sullivan, a British academic, found that:

  • ‘Girls at single-sex schools were less likely to see themselves as ‘below average’ in maths and science’ (Sullivan, 2009, p. 281). It was also noted that single-sex schooling ‘generally promoted a gender-atypical self-concept’ (p. 281). This means that gender norms may be less present in single-sex schools, giving girls the freedom to choose whatever subjects they wish, including more traditional ‘male’ subjects.
  • More recently, Sullivan and her colleagues found that ‘single-sex schools were associated with attainment in gender atypical subject areas for both boys and girls… [and] women who had attended single-sex schools were more likely than coeducated women to gain their highest qualification by age 33 in a male-dominated field’ (Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2010, p. 25). It was concluded that ‘this confirms the view that single sex environments can actually reduce the tendency of students to behave according to gender-typical stereotypes or norms’ (p. 26). ‘A single-sex environment may make it less likely that students will perceive particular academic subjects as being ‘‘for’’ a particular sex. While in a coeducational school, a girl taking physics, for example, would have found herself in a minority in the class, this would not apply in a single-sex environment’ (p. 27).

Stereotype threat

Booth, Cardona-Sosa and Nolen (2013) discussed 'stereotype threat', when girls are stereotyped as "bad" at something (such as maths or economics), and conjectured that girls would do better in all-female classes where there is a reduction in "psychological threats caused by studying with males" (p. 16). They concluded that the results of their single-sex class experiment at Essex University, which showed that girls assigned to single-sex classes outperformed those in co-ed classes (see above), demonstrated that "there is evidence that all-female classes have a direct effect on pass rates and course scores as predicted by the reduction of stereotype threat" (p. 18).

A 2011 study by Titze, Jansen and Heil compared accuracy in a test of mental rotation in girls from single-sex and coeducational schools. In previous research, this test has consistently been performed better by males than females. Tize et al.'s study found that girls at single-sex schools outperformed girls at coeducational schools in the mental rotation test. These results add to the body of evidence that single-sex educated girls are less ‘gender-stereotyped’ in their development, than girls at coeducational schools (p. 5).

In her book Pink brain, blue brain, Lise Eliot wrote that single-sex schools ‘automatically expand the leadership opportunities available to both boys and girls, and they may increase the odds that each sex will enter non-traditional disciplines’ (2009, p. 311). At a time where women are still under-represented in many of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields, many girls’ schools are bucking this trend by fostering students who chose and succeed in these ‘gender atypical’ subjects. Researchers Shapka and Keating (2003, p. 953) summarised that ‘single-sex maths and science classes could serve to reduce long-standing biases found in those disciplines and in associated occupational choices’. Su, Rounds and Armstrong (2009, p. 879) concluded in their research that efforts to increase girls’ interests in the STEM fields should be ‘initiated at formative years when children are developing gender roles and perceptions of appropriate careers’.

Socio-emotional benefits

A study of single-sex public school prepared for the U.S Department of Education found that there are many social and emotional benefits for girls who attend single-sex schools. While social interactions and emotional responses can be hard to quantify, the researchers used observational techniques and found that:

  • ‘Site visitors observed more positive academic and behavioral interactions between teachers and students in the single-sex schools than in the comparison coed schools’ (Riordan et al., 2008, p. x).

In the same study, the researchers systematically reviewed the literature on single-sex education and concluded that:

  • ‘Overall there were more social-emotional outcomes favouring single-sex schools’ (Riordan et al., 2008, p. xi).

Another American study also found:

  • ‘A positive impact of single-sex schooling on the academic, attitudinal, and social achievement levels of students, especially female students’ (Morrell, 2009, p. 194).

Post-school benefits

Several studies have explored whether there are long-term benefits for girls who were educated in single-sex schools. An American study explored the effects of attending a girls’ high school on labor market outcomes. It was found that:

  • Women who attended single-sex schools ‘earn a 19.7% higher wage than women who attended coeducational high schools’ (Billger, 2007, p. 166). Billger concludes that there is a ‘substantial’ economic return for women who attended single-sex schools (p. 181).
  • Linda Sax also found many post-school benefits when female graduates of single-sex high schools were surveyed: ‘all-girls schools—whether independent or Catholic-affiliated—appear to produce graduates who enter college more academically and politically engaged, as well as more confident in their mathematical and computer skills, than women from equivalent backgrounds who attend co-educational schools. Single-sex graduates are also more likely to begin college aspiring to become engineers’ (Sax, 2009, pp. 61-62).

References

Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) (2008). Senior secondary achievement in member schools of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools. Camberwell: ACER.

Bell, S., O’Halloran, K., Saw, J., & Zhao, Y. (2009). Women in science: maximising productivity, diversity and innovation. Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies.

Billger, S. (2007). Does attending predominately female schools make a difference? Labor market outcomes for women. Journal of Economics and Finance, 31(2), 166-185.

Booth, A., & Nolen. (2009a). Gender differences in risk behaviour: does nurture matter? IZA Discussion Paper No. 4026.

Booth, A., & Nolan, P. (2009b). Choosing to compete: how different are girls and boys? IZA Discussion Paper No. 4027.

Booth, A., Cardona-Sosa, L., and Nolen, P. (2013). Do single-sex classes affect exam scores? An experiment in a co-educational university. Australian National University Centre for Economic Policy Research. Discussion Paper No. 679, 1-21.

Bradley, K. (2009). An investigation of single-sex education and its impact on academic achievement, discipline referral frequency, and attendance for first and second grade public school students. Ph.D. dissertation, Mercer University, United States -- Georgia. Retrieved September 20, 2010, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text. (Publication No. AAT 3374139).

Eliot, L. (2009). Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How small differences grow into troublesome gaps - and what we can do about it. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Girls' Schools Association. (2013, November 20). How good are girls? Press release. Retrieved from: www.isc.co.uk/press/press-releases/2013/how-good-are-girls.

Institute of Physics. (2012). It's different for girls: the influence of schools. Retrieved from: www.iop.org.

Malacova, E. (2007). Effect of single-sex education on progress in GCSE. Oxford Review of Education, 33(2), 233-259.

Morrell, P. (2009). Single-sex classroom implementation in a predominantly low-income, public, urban elementary school: perceptions, engagement, and achievement. Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, State University of New York.

Riordan, C. (2008). Early implementation of public single-sex schools: perceptions and characteristics. Jessup: US Department of Education.

Sax, L. (2009). Women graduates of single-sex and coeducational high schools: differences in their characteristics and their transition to college. Los Angeles: UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Shapka, J., & Keating, D. (2003). Effects of a girls-only curriculum during adolescence: performance, persistence and engagement in mathematics and science. American Educational Research Journal, 40(4), 929-960.

Shulruf, B., Hattie, J., & Tumen, S. (2008). Individual and school factors affecting students’ participation and success in higher education. Higher Education, 56(5), 613-632.

Su, R., Rounds, J., & Armstrong, P. (2009). Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychological Bulletin, 135(6), 859-884. doi: 10.1037/a0017364

Sullivan, A. (2009). Academic self-concept, gender and single-sex schooling. British Educational Research Journal, 35(2), 259-288.

Sullivan, A., Joshi, H., & Leonard, D. (2010). Single-sex schooling and academic attainment at school and through the lifecourse. American Educational Research Journal, 47(1), 6-36.

Titze, C., Jansen, P., & Heil, M. (2011). Single-sex school girls outperform girls attending a co-educative school in mental rotation accuracy. Sex Roles. Published online. doi: 10.1007/s11199-011-9947-y

Tully, D., & Jacobs, B. (2010). Effects of single-gender mathematics classroom on self-perception of mathematical ability and post secondary engineering paths: an Australian case study. European Journal of Engineering Education, 33(4), 455-467. DOI: 10.1080/03043797.2010.489940.

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