Single-sex vs. co-ed schooling for girls

23 July 2015

The single-sex versus co-ed school debate is back in the headlines after The Armidale School (TAS) in NSW announced that it will enrol girls from 2016. As is the case at TAS, the movement toward co-education is usually driven more by economic viability than educational outcomes and preparation for the world beyond school.

Sadly, we don’t live in a world with gender equality. 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 their careers and girls are often disadvantaged in co-ed schools.

Choosing a school is one of the most important decisions that parents make for their children. There may never be agreement on which type of schooling is “better” or “best”, but what we should be able to agree on is that each child is an individual and having choice in the education sector is a positive, not a negative. Education is not “one size fits all”. Do we really want an education system that comprises only state-run co-ed schools? And would other female-oriented organisations such as Girl Guides or YWCA also be under pressure to admit boys?

The case for choosing a girls’ school is strong, and should not be based solely on academic results. While important, academic achievement is only one measure of a well-rounded education. Although girls’ schools consistently perform highly in the annual NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy tests and in Year 12 academic outcomes, it is the unparalleled opportunities that girls’ schools provide for girls both during and after their schooling that set them apart.

Girls are more confident and assertive in a learning environment that is free from gender discrimination. Without the competition and social pressure from boys, girls engage in more healthy competition and risk taking – skills that are advantageous for leadership and life success. Girls are also more likely to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and participate in sports and physical education. And post-school they are more likely to pursue tertiary study and careers in STEM, hold leadership positions and earn higher wages than girls’ educated in co-ed schools. One study suggests girls educated in girls’ schools earn 19.7 per cent higher wages than girls from co-ed schools.

There are predictions of worldwide shortages in graduates from STEM courses, yet only 6.6 per cent of Australian girls studied advanced mathematics in 2013, half the rate of boys. Even worse, in NSW, only 1.5 per cent of girls took advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry. Girls’ schools, however, are bucking the trend, with girls taking advanced mathematics and physical science subjects at rates as high as 30 per cent.

It’s simply easier for girls to develop leadership skills in girls’ schools where girls fill every leadership position in every year level in every activity. We need more women ready and able to take up senior leadership positions and add diversity to the boards of Australian companies. Currently there are more men named Peter than the total number of women on the boards of ASX 200 companies.

Girls’ schools are at the forefront of ensuring that girls have the academic and leadership skills to equip them for a very different future than that envisioned by previous generations. Many of the jobs that today’s pre-schoolers will hold have not been invented yet but most will require some STEM skills. Girls’ schools encourage girls to study STEM subjects and leave the door open to the highly skilled and more highly paid careers in areas traditionally dominated by men.

Single-sex schools also give girls and boys the opportunity to be taught in relevant ways to suit their different stages of development, interests and learning styles. Research does tell us that one of the key factors effecting learning outcomes is teacher effectiveness. Single-sex classrooms allow content and pedagogy to be tailored to the interests and learning styles of the gender. American psychologist JoAnn Deak, said “girls and boys are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down”.

Parents also choose girls’ schools for their safe, nurturing environment; for the quality of pastoral care that is designed specifically for girls; and for the excellent female role models who encourage their daughters to aim high in whichever path they choose to follow.

Finally, the viewpoint that girls in single-sex schools are denied the opportunity to mix with boys and are unable to cope with the co-educational environment of university and the workplace is anachronistic. The education landscape has changed significantly, and in the twenty-first century students from single-sex schools are encouraged to participate in co-ed activities such as debating, music, drama, sport and even academic programs – facilitated and promoted by their schools. Girls also socialise with boys at various school events and outside of school. The factor that distinguishes girls’ schools, however, is that there are no boys in the classroom to distract, discourage or intimidate girls. Girls participatemore actively in classroom discussions and are more engaged in their learning in a single-sex classroom.

Parents, and indeed students, value the ability to choose the school that best fits their needs. Girls’ schools are far more than their academic results — they provide a supportive learning environment that is free from gender discrimination, equipping girls with the confidence to study any subject they enjoy, participate in a wide range of extra-curricular activities, take on leadership roles, and pursue studies and careers in any field they choose.