Single-sex education for girls: what the research shows
There are many benefits to girls being educated in the single-sex environment of a girls’ school where there are no expectations that they should fulfil traditional gender stereotypes in the subjects they study, the activities they participate in or the career they pursue. Research shows that girls have access to all leadership opportunities, achieve greater academic success, and are more confident and assertive in single-sex environments. They are also more likely to study in the ‘gender atypical’ areas of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at school and university, and are more likely to pursue a career in these non-traditional areas. Why?
Without competition from boys, girls in girls’ schools are free to pursue academic excellence in any area they choose. Research shows that single-sex educated girls receive a less gender-stereotyped development than co-educated girls. Research also shows that girls’ in single-sex schools engage in more healthy competition and risk-taking than girls in co-educational schools. Risk taking and competitive traits are advantageous skills for leadership and many careers. The research demonstrates that girls feel empowered to behave in a more competitive ways without the presence of boys.
The following snapshots from recent research literature, as well as use of statistics compiled by the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia, the Girls’ Schools Association (UK), the Independent Schools Council (UK) and the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (US), demonstrate the many and varied benefits of single-sex schooling for girls. All studies selected were published in 2007 or later. The source of each study can be located in reference list below.
Research shows girls benefit from single-sex environments
• Professor Alison Booth, Public Policy Fellow at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, recently wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that one hour a week of single-sex education benefits girls and that “the evidence is gathering that women in single-gender classes benefit, and they benefit significantly” (Booth, 2014).
• An experiment undertaken at Essex University, a co-educational university in the UK, by Booth and her British colleagues 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).
• Bradley, in her American PhD dissertation investigating single-sex education and its impact on academic achievement, concluded that “the single-sex environment provides females with the best opportunity for academic achievement” (Bradley, 2009, p. 119).
• Belfi et al. stated that “single-sex classes are advantageous for girls’ school well-being and academic self-concept” (2011, p. 2).
• “Girls in single-sex schools perform better academically than their counterparts in coeducational schools, after holding constant measures of selection, background, peers and school factors” (Cabezas, 2010, p. 227).
• Single-sex education positively impacts the environment and makes it “conducive to heightened student academic achievement” (Scoggins, 2009, p. 82).
• Single-sex schooling strengthens female students’ self-confidence and self-assessment of their mathematics skills. “Single-sex schooling thus has profound implications for human capital formation and the mind-set of female students” (Eisenkopf et al., 2011, p. 1).
Stereotype threat, risk-taking and healthy competition
• In their 2013 study, Booth, Cardona-Sosa and Nolen 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).
• Booth and Nolen also conducted two studies in 2009 exploring whether gender differences in risk attitudes were influenced by the environment or largely inherent. They 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).
• 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. Titze et al.'s study found that girls at single-sex schools outperformed girls at co-educational 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 a report prepared for the US National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) analysing the 2013 High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) conducted by Indiana University — which surveyed 2013 girls attending NCGS member schools, 5210 girls from co-ed independent schools and 5741 girls from co-ed public schools — it was found that 95.5% of girls at NCGS schools agreed or strongly agreed that they actively participated in classroom discussions. Of these, 41.5% of girls at NCGS schools strongly agreed that they were engaged by teachers in classroom discussions, in contrast to 33.3% of girls in co-ed independent schools and 12.9% of girls in co-ed public schools (Holmgren, 2014, p. 4).
‘Gender atypical’ subject selection: Statistics
• In 2010, Tully and Jacobs noted that 22% of female students in New South Wales attended a single-sex school, but 40% of female engineering students at the University of Technology in Sydney were from girls' secondary schools (pp. 458, 463). They 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).
• In 2012, girls from GSA schools in the UK constituted only 5% of girls taking A-levels but comprised 15.9% of girls doing Further Maths, 13.4% of girls doing Physics and 8.9% of girls doing Chemistry. Furthermore, girls from GSA schools were awarded (Independent Schools Council, 2013):
- 25.9% of all Physics A* grades awarded to girls,
- 24.7% of all Further Maths A* grades awarded to girls, and
- 19.8% of all Chemistry A* grades awarded to girls.
• In 2012 Britain’s 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).
‘Gender atypical’ subject selection: Research
• A study of the status of women in science in Australia noted that “girls perform better in science in single-sex schools” (Bell et al., 2009, p. 36).
• In their study of female engineering students at a Sydney university, Tully and Jacobs concluded that: " Single gender classes may provide a learning environment where the female voice is not marginalised. 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" (2010, 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”. She also noted that single-sex schooling “generally promoted a gender-atypical self-concept” (2009, p. 281).
• More recently, Sullivan, Joshi and Leonard 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” (2010, p. 25). 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” (Sullivan, Joshi & Leonard, 2010, p. 27).
• 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.
Academic results: Statistics and research
Girls’ schools in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US consistently ‘punch well above their weight’ when it comes to academic excellence. In Australia, where girls’ schools comprise about 7% of secondary schools, 25.6% of Australian Student Prizes awarded in 2013 to the nation’s top 500 students went to girls from girls’ schools. In New Zealand, girls from girls’ schools were awarded 51.1% of the country’s Top Subject Scholarship Awards in 2013, and in 2012 the only girl (so far) to win the Prime Minister’s Award for Academic Excellence, recognising New Zealand’s highest performing student, attended a girls’ school. In the UK, where 5.2% of girls taking A-levels in 2012 attended schools belonging to the Girls’ Schools Association, 21.6% received an A* grade, compared to 7.9% of girls receiving A* grades nationally. In the US, 98.7% of girls attending girls’ schools expect to earn a four-year, graduate or professional degree and 78.9% of girls report that most of their classes challenge them to their full potential, as compared to 44.3% of girls in co-ed public schools. (See below for further details and sources.)
• Analysis of Year 7 and Year 9 numeracy and literacy (NAPLAN) data conducted on behalf of The Australian newspaper shows that 46 of Australia's 'Top 100 Secondary Schools' in 2013 were girls' schools (Your School Top 100 Rankings Tables, 2014), despite these 46 schools only constituting 1.7% of Australia's 2700 secondary schools and, overall, Australia’s 190 girls’ schools only comprising about 7% of all Australian secondary schools (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2014).
• In 2013, girls from girls’ schools received 25.6% of Australian Student Prizes awarded to the nation’s top 500 students (Australia, Department of Education, 2014a, 2014b):
- In South Australia, 15 of the 40 prizes (37.5%) went to girls from girls’ schools.
- In NSW, 43 of the 149 prizes (28.8%) went to girls from girls’ schools.
- In Victoria, 31 of the 123 prizes (25.2%) went to girls from girls’ schools.
- In Western Australia, 13 of the 52 prizes (25.0%) went to girls from girls’ schools.
- In Queensland, 25 of the 111 prizes (22.5%) went to girls from girls’ schools.
- In the ACT, 1 of the 10 prizes (10.0%) went to a girl from a girls’ school.
- Students in Tasmania and the Northern Territory each received 10 Australian Student Prizes, but no Tasmanian recipients attended a girls’ school and there are no girls’ schools in the Northern Territory.
• A report prepared by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in 2008 demonstrated that girls in Australian Alliance member schools achieved high tertiary entrance scores (ACER, 2008):
- In Victoria, 36% of tertiary entrance scores (ENTERs) were 90 or more in Alliance schools and girls attending Victorian Alliance member schools produced almost three times the proportion of very high (40+) Study Scores than girls at non-member schools (p. 23).
- In South Australia, 52% of girls at Alliance member schools gained university entrance scores of 90 and above (p. 23).
- In NSW, girls in Alliance member schools exceeded the state mean in seven subjects chosen for analysis: English, Mathematics, Business Studies, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Modern History. The highest performing member schools were more than 10 points above the state mean in all subjects (p. 16).
- In New Zealand the rate of achievement of outstanding scholarships in Alliance member schools was almost three times the national average (pp. 12-13).
• In New Zealand, similarly outstanding results have been achieved (New Zealand Qualifications Authority, 2014):
- Girls from girls’ schools were awarded 39.4% of the country’s Top Subject Scholarship Awards in 2012 and 51.1% of Top Subject awards in 2013.
- In 2013, the only girl to receive a Premier Award, placing her in the nation’s top ten students, was from a girls’ school.
- In 2012, the only girl (so far) to win the Prime Minister’s Award for Academic Excellence, recognising New Zealand’s highest performing student, attended a girls’ school.
• ACER’s 2008 report also demonstrated that:
- the rate of achievement of outstanding scholarships in New Zealand Alliance member schools was almost three times the national average (pp. 12-13).
• In 2012, there were 7,500 girls taking A-levels at schools belonging to the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) in the UK, comprising just 5.2% of all girls taking A-levels nationally. Research conducted by Rudolf Eliott Lockhart showed that in 2012 (Independent Schools Council, 2013):
- Girls at GSA schools achieved a “disproportionately large share of the top grades in Sciences, Maths and Languages” and were “propping up these key subjects nationally”.
- Overall, across all subjects, 21.6% of GSA entries received an A* grade, compared to only 7.9% of girls receiving A* grades nationally.
- In French, girls from GSA schools were awarded 31.7% of A* grades awarded to girls.
- In Chemistry, Physics and Further Maths, they were awarded between 19.8% and 25.9% of A* grades going to girls.
• The 2014 report prepared for the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) found that girls at NCGS schools have “higher aspirations”, “greater motivation” and are “challenged to achieve more than their female peers” at co-ed independent and public schools (Holmgren, 2014, pp. 2-3). In particular:
- 98.7% of girls attending girls’ schools belonging to the NCGS expect to earn a four-year, graduate or professional degree (p. 2).
- 78.9% of girls at NCGS schools report that most of their classes challenge them to their full potential, as compared to 72.3% in co-ed independent schools and 44.3% girls in co-ed public schools (p. 3).
- 97.9% of girls at NCGS schools stated that their school emphasised understanding information and ideas in their classes, as opposed to rote learning (p. 3), and 95.8% believe their school contributed to their ability to think critically, compared to 84.5% and 77.6% in co-ed public schools (p. 7).
University, careers and leadership
• 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).
• A New Zealand study found that “the likelihood of gaining university entrance qualifications … increased in girls’ only schools” (Shulruf, Hattie & Tumen, 2008, p. 627).
• An American study exploring the effects of attending a girls’ high school on labour market outcomes 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 concluded that there was 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 coeducational schools. Single-sex graduates are also more likely to begin college aspiring to become engineers” (2009, pp. 61-62).
Social and emotional benefits
• A study of single-sex public schools prepared for the US Department of Education found that there are many social and emotional benefits for girls who attend single-sex schools. Researchers using observational techniques 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 [sic] schools” (Riordan et al., 2008, p. x).
•In the same study, researchers systematically reviewed the literature on single-sex education and concluded that: “Overall there were more social-emotional outcomes favoring 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).
• More recently, a 2014 study found that 97.0% of girls attending NCGS schools in the US felt safe at their schools. Of these, 69.4% strongly agreed that they felt safe, compared to 55.1% of girls at co-ed independent schools and just 17.1% of girls at co-ed public schools. In addition, 88.6% of girls at NCGS schools reported feeling comfortable “being themselves” at their school. Of these 43.7% strongly agreed that they felt comfortable. In contrast, 35.4% of girls at co-ed independent and 18.3% of girls at co-ed public schools strongly agreed that they felt comfortable at their school (Holmgren, 2014, p. 6).
• The NCGS report also stated that: “Students attending all-girl schools experience higher levels of support from their classmates, teachers, and administrators than do their female peers at coeducational [sic] public schools”, with 89.9% feeling supported by other students and 94.6% feeling supported by their teachers. In co-ed public schools, 73.1% felt supported by other students and 84.1% felt supported by their teachers (p 8).
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