Single-sex schools are more relevant than ever

Article by Jan Richardson
Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia / 06 November 2018

Christopher Scanlon’s article, Co-ed or single-sex schools? Are all-boys or all-girls schools still relevant? in SMH (5 November 2018) argues that single-sex schools only do well because they are private schools and therefore it is the socioeconomic status of these families that leads to academic success in girls’ and boys’ schools.  While the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia is happy to debate the research regarding academic outcomes in single-sex and co-educational schools, we believe that the more important issues are choice and student wellbeing. We recognise that about 88 per cent of Australian secondary schools are co-educational and that many students and parents prefer the co-educational model. However we also strongly believe that students and parents should have the ability to choose a single-sex school if that is the right decision for them.

In particular, we believe that single-sex schooling offers girls the unparalleled opportunity to hold every leadership position, to play every instrument in a school’s orchestras and bands, to captain every sports team from water polo to rugby, to study STEM subjects at higher participation rates (up to 85 per cent more likely than girls in co-ed schools), and to be encouraged to speak up on any issue without fear of being gender stereotyped. In addition, we believe that girls’ schools play a vital role in promoting a positive body image and healthy mental wellbeing.

Backing this view, a 2016 study by Victoria Cribb and Dr Anne Haase from Bristol University found that girls in co-educational schools have lower self-esteem and feel more pressure to be thin than girls in single-sex schools. It was also found that single-sex schools encourage “improved self-esteem, psychological and social wellbeing in adolescent girls”. A 2016 British Parliament inquiry found that girls in co-ed high schools are subjected to daily sexual harassment (including 29 per cent of girls aged 16-18 who experience unwanted sexual touching at school) and are the victims of implicit bias by teachers who steer girls away from ‘hard’ subjects like advanced maths, physics and computer science.

And a US study has found that less than 1 per cent of female students in single-sex schools experience bullying, compared with 21 per cent of female students in co-ed schools. In addition, girls at single-sex schools are not only more likely to take part in gender nonconforming activities than girls at co-ed schools, but also “significantly less likely to be bullied” for preferring ‘masculine’ sports (including football, baseball and basketball) over ‘feminine’ sports and activities (including softball, cheerleading, choir and art classes). In fact, said the study authors, “single-sex schools emerge as a protective factor for female gender nonconforming girls”.

Putting research aside and listening to students, girls who attend girls’ schools tell a familiar story – their all-girls school is a place where they can be themselves, feel supported and confident. 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”.

However, returning to Scanlon’s claim about socioeconomic status and academic achievement. A 2014 report by Dr Lucy Lu and Karen Rickard for the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, examining numeracy and literacy (NAPLAN) data for junior secondary students and tertiary entrance scores (TES) for senior secondary students, “confirmed the positive effects of single-sex schooling” in the NSW government system, where there are 21 boys’ and 24 girls’ government high schools. The report found that after accounting for the variation between schools in intake policies and student characteristics (such as socioeconomic status), “the effect associated with single-sex schooling ranged from 0.08 standard deviations for junior secondary students to 0.2 standard deviations for senior secondary students”. The report notes that this finding “warrants further investigation as to reasons why students appear to achieve more in these schools than in co-educational schools”.

Similarly, a 2013 report by Dr Sinan Gemici, Patrick Lim and Professor Tom Karmel found that, for “reasons the data cannot uncover, schools which deviate from the norm”, including single-sex schools, “do better” when it comes to tertiary entrance scores and that this is consistent with previous research. In fact, two-thirds of all schools they categorised as “high-performing” schools were single-sex. Furthermore, they found that a school’s average socioeconomic status does not influence tertiary entrance scores, though it does affect the probability of a student attending university.

Scanlon also mentions a report by Dr Katherine Dix, which is a welcome addition to the growing body of research on Australian single-sex education. Scanlon states that Dix’s research shows that “while students attending single-sex schools start out strong, the benefits declined over time”. While this is true, it is also the case that at the end of Year 7, boys at single-sex schools were, on average, 1.6 terms ahead of co-educational students in reading and 3.9 terms ahead in mathematics, while Year 7 girls at single-sex schools were 4.2 terms ahead of co-ed students in reading and 2.8 terms ahead in mathematics. Dix’s results, like the two previous studies mentioned, also took socioeconomic status into account so these gaps exist over and above any benefit conferred by a student’s family background.

It should also be noted that Dix’s study only looked at NAPLAN results for Years 3, 5 and 7 and did not take into account secondary school results which, as already mentioned, show that students at public (not private) single-sex high schools in New South Wales achieve higher academic results and that, as a whole, single-sex schools “do better’ when it comes to tertiary entrance scores, even after accounting for socioeconomic status.

Girls’ schools are going strong in both Australia and New Zealand and there is no evidence of a decline in the number of girls’ schools since single-sex schools amalgamated or closed in the 1970s and 1980s due to the economic recession at that time.

We believe that in today’s gender unequal world, girls’ schools provide a gender stereotype-free environment where girls can participate in and succeed at any academic subject or extracurricular activity they choose. Girls’ schools provide an environment where girls can understand the gendered world and leave with the confidence that they can take on anything and, in this day and age of #MeToo and calls for diversity inclusion, there is no better argument for giving girls the strength, persistence and personal belief that they need to make a genuine contribution towards a better world defined by true gender equality and respect for people of all backgrounds.