Many families in Tasmania are fortunate to have a choice between government-funded co-educational and single-sex schools. In most states and territories, families are not so lucky. In Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, only independent and Catholic schools provide single-sex options — there are no state single-sex schools.
The debate over single-sex verses co-ed schooling often polarises opinions. While we each have our own school experience, schooling has changed and how do we know which model is best for our twenty-first century children?
Proponents of co-education argue that our world and specifically our workplaces are co-ed therefore our schools too should be co-ed. But the reality for women is that our world and workplaces, while mixed gender, are a long way from being gender-equal.
Research into gender bias shows that girls as young as 4 years old perceive themselves to be less powerful than boys, and by the age of 5 children are well on their way to learning gender stereotypes. In high school girls are more likely to view their maths ability as ‘below average’ and there’s a significant difference between girls’ and boys’ subject choices with fewer girls participating in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and fewer boys taking creative and humanities subjects. Once in the workplace women are not represented equally in senior leadership roles and earn on average 19 per cent less than their male counterparts.
In contrast, girls’ schools provide a unique environment where girls don’t have to compete with boys for leadership positions or their teachers’ attention. Nor do they have to conform to gender stereotypes, or deal with unwanted sexual attention. They thrive in subjects typically dominated by boys, and learn their own worth, beliefs and value without social pressure from boys. Vitally, girls’ schools provide a safe space for girls to learn to combat the gender bias and sexism that still exist within universities, workplaces and our broader communities — so that when girls leave school they feel confident to lead and work alongside males as equals.
Girls are increasingly subjected to unrelenting pressure from the media and social media over body image. They are also the victims of unwanted sexting, sexual harassment and exposure to pornography. The rise in anxiety, depression and self-harm in girls and young women in Australia is a major concern with a 2016 Mission Australia report finding that nearly 30 per cent exhibited symptoms of a serious mental illness. Girls’ schools are uniquely placed to support students through these complex and difficult issues, because girls’ schools specialise in girls. From their teaching and pastoral care to enterprise and leadership programs, the focus remains firmly on what’s best for girls.
At our student leadership conferences the girls tell a familiar story – their all-girls school is a place where they can be themselves, feel supported and confident, and escape the intrusion of sexualisation into their lives. Girls are able to value themselves and each other as independent entities. In their school environment they are not subjected to the sort of male scrutiny and gender stereotyping that can diminish a girl’s identity and sense of a possible future, and for that they express genuine gratitude. As one Year 12 student put it: “You’re able to be more open … everyone has an equal chance to speak up and be heard”. And on boys: “There’s plenty of opportunities to socialise with boys outside of school but at school my focus is on learning”.
In some countries, most notably the US, single-sex education is back in favour and on the rise. Supported by the growing body of research showing that students do better academically in single-sex learning environments.
However, in Australia co-education is by far the dominant model (approx. 88 per cent of secondary schools are co-ed) and the driver is economies of scale and enrolment numbers, not students’ (and definitely not girls’) academic, social and emotional wellbeing.
What’s the bottom line on single-sex education?
The best educational environment may just be one without the opposite sex. Single-sex learning environments increase student confidence, provide a safe place for students to develop their identities and could help to reduce to the gender gap. If we want fearless, strong girls who challenge gender bias and stereotypes and step up and lead then we need to ensure that parents have the option to choose a girls’ school for their daughter.
Image courtesy of Toorak College.