The popular argument that children should be educated in a co-ed environment because it replicates our society — the real world — is simplistic at best, damaging at worst.
Let’s be honest. The reality is that we don’t live in a society with gender equality. The statistics remain appalling and the rate of change is glacial. Men still earn more than women, and women are sorely underrepresented in senior leadership positions, on boards and in government. Women often experience discrimination in the workplace and in their careers. And the same is true in co-ed schools. Girls in co-ed schools experience higher levels of gender bias and stereotyping, sexual harassment and bullying than girls in single-sex schools.
Girls do not do better in a co-ed environment, boys might, but the research clearly shows that girls do not. Girls can be a positive influence on boys’ learning by helping to moderate boys’ behaviour. Yet for girls, the cost of co-ed schooling can be high and lifelong. Are we really prepared to sacrifice our daughters for the sake of our sons?
Results from NAPLAN and PISA and findings from Mission Australia’s Youth Survey all point to the disadvantages of co-ed schools for girls, revealing that academic, social and emotional wellbeing is lower for girls in co-ed schools than in single-sex schools.
Research aside, you only need to visit a girls’ school to see the difference. Girls in co-ed schools are more self-conscious and less confident, they are less likely to speak up in class, ask questions or take on a leadership role. They are also more likely to have a negative body image, and to experience sexual harassment or bullying. In contrast, girls in girls-only environments feel empowered to be themselves. They participate more freely in discussions, and are more competitive and willing to take healthy risks with their learning — skills that are advantageous for life success.
Girls’ schools are at the forefront of gender equality, deliberately challenging gendered norms and purposefully building girls’ confidence, conviction and self-belief, making sure that girls have the skills and knowledge to speak out and to break down those barriers.
However, perhaps the strong evidence favouring single-sex schooling is that so many co-ed schools are trying to replicate the benefits of single-sex schools by implementing single-sex classes or introducing parallel or diamond models of schooling that separate the sexes for some of their classes — all the whileclaiming that co-ed schooling is preferable because it replicates the real world — and it does — co-ed schools replicate a world where women are not yet equal, where gender stereotypes are reinforced, girls’ voices are often unheard and there is no equality.
Don’t be fooled into thinking co-ed schools with single-sex classes offer a solution. While they may be better than nothing, they cannot begin to replicate the environment of a single-sex girls’ school.
The factor that distinguishes single-sex schools is that every aspect of teaching and learning is tailored to girls, every program for wellbeing, healthy development, leadership and learning caters to the needs of girls and this purposefully develops their confidence, empowering them to pursue any direction their talents lead them. And for girls, the absence of boys and lack of gender stereotyping at a girls’ school allows them to happily be whatever they want to be, whether that is a data analyst or medical researcher, a politician or an artist.
Moreover, with research showing that girls are more likely to feel the need to be perfect and to struggle with confidence when they make even small mistakes, it’s particularly important to cultivate their resilience and academic buoyancy, as Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is, explains: “What we want is for girls to have the capacity to move through a setback without beating themselves up.” Developing resilience, confidence and fearlessness is what girls’ schools do best.
This is why girls from single-sex schools buck the trend when it comes to girls’ participation in areas that have been traditionally male-dominated, such as STEM and economics, opening the door for girls to pursue tertiary studies and careers in the highly skilled and more highly paid areas of engineering, computing, business and entrepreneurship.
We will not find gender justice by replicating the injustices and inequalities of society in our schools, and until we can reach equality our girls simply become collateral damage.