Single-sex education is not the problem

Article by Loren Bridge - Executive Officer
Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia / 25 February 2022

With the harassment and abuse of women and girls very much in the news, the age-old issue of single-sex versus co-educational schooling has re-emerged, fuelled by public displays of male privilege from school boys and shared experiences of a rape culture, as reported by many brave young women (Contos, 2021; Sara, 2021). However, the research is clear; single-sex education is not the problem. Rather, an enduring legacy of male privilege and a significant deficit in consent education across all sectors are to blame, and this is a societal problem that can’t be solved by removing safe spaces for girls.

Girls fare better in all-girls schools, not only because they offer a safe space from gender stereotypes and sexual harassment while engaged in learning, but also because of the absence of gendered social pressures in the broader single-sex campus. Girls’ schools encourage students to speak up in class, to take healthy risks with their learning, ask questions, share their views, and participate in subjects and activities that are usually dominated by boys in co-ed schools. Girls have the chance to develop their confidence, self-assurance, and a sense of who they are away from gendered expectations — and this can be life changing for girls.

Unhealthy interaction between boys and girls rampant in co-ed schools

According to a recent report released by South Australian (SA) Commissioner for Children and Young People, children and young people expressed “frustration and concern” about the lack of discussion about “sexism, sexual assault, and domestic violence” in their health education, saying they felt “unsafe at school, at work, and socially — as well as within their intimate relationships”.

Author of the report, Commissioner Helen Connolly, warned that not only do “sexism and gender stereotyping lie at the heart of gender inequality”, they also “undermine girls’ confidence and self-worth, and distort interactions and relationships between girls and boys in ways that are unhealthy, negatively impacting on the health, safety, confidence and wellbeing” of all students”.

Broadscale pan-sectoral surveys conducted by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) support Connolly’s findings. Ofsted (2021) found gendered sexual harassment was prevalent in UK co-educational schools, and overwhelmingly involved boys targeting girls. In terms of prevalence, 37 per cent of female students from mixed-sex schools had personally experienced sexual harassment at school, while 24 per cent had experienced unwanted sexual touching. Alarmingly, 68 per cent of teachers witnessed sexual harassment at school.

Ofsted’s teacher-related data aligns with Connolly’s findings that school staff failed to adequately respond to girls’ sexual harassment reports, and that a lack of stewardship leaves them feeling “unsafe at school”. Additionally, teachers actively reinforced gender stereotypes, by differentiating their expectations according to gender lines — informing one of the report’s three recommendations advocating teachers be trained in “the prevention of sexism, sexual harassment, and stereotyping in the classroom”. Indeed, in the UK study, many girls expressed frustration at being left to manage the boys without proper consent education and felt they were impeding their learning.

The SA report builds on prior research, including that of US-based Goodkind and Bay-Cheng (2021), who — noting that “a central mandate of girls’ and women’s gender socialisation is to bear responsibility for boys and men” — examined girls’ self-perceived responsibility to dress ‘appropriately’ in mixed sex schools so boys could concentrate. While many girls rejected such responsibility for boys’ concentration, others accepted it, altering their dress accordingly. This speaks to the socialisation of girls in a gendered society to support, self-efface and generally make things easier for boys — and this begins long before secondary school.

Connolly found that teachers in co-ed schools used “female students to moderate and monitor the behaviour of boys” — this manipulation of girls as buffers also manifests as carefully designed seating plans, placing quiet, studious girls between rambunctious, disengaged boys, minimising the learning and wellbeing of girls and reinforce the gender stereotype of girls as ‘helpers’ (Hallahan, 2019; Skelton, 2006).

Co-ed schools disadvantage girls. Rather than creating healthy, respectful environments where students learn and thrive, for girls, co-ed schools can be just the opposite. Research from Scandinavian preschools demonstrates just how early institutional gender stereotyping begins (Olssen & Martiny, 2018), in addition to illustrating the benefits when single-sex preschool experiences allow girls to bypass limiting stereotypes.

Scandinavia is known for its gender progressiveness, and in Sweden, gender stereotypes are actively challenged in ‘gender neutral’ pre-schools, with practices such as assertiveness education for girls and universal use of the gender-neutral pronoun. In Iceland, ‘Hjalli’ schools teach children in single-sex classes for most of the day, coming together each day in supervised activities where it is ensured that there are positive interactions between girls and boys. Gísladóttir & Pálsdóttir’s (2017) research found this scaffolded contact between the sexes encouraged the children to challenge gender stereotypes, with results such as assertive protection of personal boundaries in girls (saying ‘no’). Hjalli students also exhibited increased gender equity awareness when interviewed in upper primary and adolescence.

However, research conducted in co-educational pre-schools without a gender equity focus found that boys dominated the STEM-focussed play areas. Boys controlled the sandpit and construction areas, with girls only gaining access over time by adopting ‘helping’ roles such as passing blocks (Hallstrom, 2017). While single-sex education is more common in secondary school, these early lessons from Scandinavia are indicative of just how powerful safe spaces for girls can be.

Sexism and misogyny are commonplace in co-ed schools and the often-used excuse of ‘boys will be boys’ lead girls to believe that their rights and feelings are not important — or at least, not important enough to justify curtailing boys’ inappropriate behaviours.

Without active disruption, these stereotypes can be internalised, leading to ingrained modes of relating with the opposite sex (Hallstrom, 2017). In an all-girls school, the focus can be on optimising girls’ learning, including teaching consent from a female perspective.

Girls’ schools don’t shelter girls from inequality. In fact, quite the opposite. Girls are intentionally “equipped with the knowledge and skills required to overcome social and cultural gender biases and in doing so actively break the stereotypical norms that define women in society” (Archard, 2012; 2018).

Why girls thrive in single-sex schools

Girls’ schools purposefully teach girls about the gendered world, from the perspective they will experience it, a woman’s perspective. This develops confidence, promotes resilience and self-esteem, and empowers girls towards a healthy self-concept — in addition to promoting higher career aspirations and academic achievement (MMG, 2018).

Research for the Australian Gender Equality Council found that Australian girls educated in single-sex schools are equally as self-confident as boys educated in single-sex schools and concluded that women are likely to be no less confident than men under conditions where gender stereotypes and gendered structures are mitigated by their environments — as they are in single-sex schools (Fitzsimmons et al., 2018). Research conducted by Laury et al. (2019) also “found that single-sex classes provided nurturing conditions in which girls were willing to compete and take calculated risks” (Robinson et al., 2021, p. 6).

All-girls school graduates also buck the trend when it comes to STEM subjects. They show greater confidence in STEM (Lee & Anderson, 2015); engagement and enjoyment in mathematics (Ryan, 2016), up to 85 per cent higher participation in physics, chemistry, and level maths (Forgasz & Leder, 2017) when compared to co-ed girls.

Going forward

Solutions must be focussed on continuing the push for education about consent, and, yes, the development of more positive non-sexually toned relationships between the sexes during their school years — but not at the expense of girls’ education and wellbeing. The format of schooling has become a distraction from the problem. The question is not whether single-sex or co-ed schooling is better; it is about how we socialise boys and girls.

Until co-ed schools can match the consistently positive academic, social, and emotional benefits of all-girls schools (MMG, 2018; Mission Australia, 2020) for girls and have rates of sexual aggression and bullying no higher than at girls’ schools — abolishing single-sex schooling for girls is a case of a mis-prescribed remedy. Certainly, the continuing revelations of sex-based, gendered abuse experienced by girls in co-ed schools means the ‘just add girls’ solution is not only dismissive of girls’ emotional and education needs, but also carries the potential for increasing the damage.

The remedy instead is likely the recommendations put forward by Connolly to review and improve sexual health education “to specifically address sexism, sexual harassment and gender-based bullying”; to support school staff with education in the prevention of stereotypes and improve response to complaints. And in the meantime, perhaps we need even more safe spaces for girls to grow and aspire to be strong, bold, and fearless women who will demand inclusion, stand up for equality in all aspects of society, and believe anything is possible.



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