Social, emotional and health benefits

In a girls’ school where there are no gender stereotypes, no appearance pressures, much lower rates of bullying, and no sexism or sexual harassment, girls are truly free to be who they want to be, both inside and outside the classroom. Studies show that girls are less self-conscious, more confident and less likely to suffer body image pressures or eating disorders in a single-sex environment. They are also far less likely to be bullied by other girls and, without boys in the school, can participate fully in all aspects of school life without worrying about being the subject of sexist or inappropriate comments and behaviour.

• A 2020 analysis of PISA data from 2015 and 2018 on bullying found that, on average, 79% of girls at single-sex schools in Australia and New Zealand never or hardly ever experienced bullying, compared with 71% of girls from co-ed schools. Compared with girls from co-ed schools, students from girls’ schools reported:

  • Never or hardly ever being threatened by other students (89% vs 78%)
  • Never or hardly ever being the subject of nasty rumours (73% vs 62%)
  • Never or hardly ever being made fun of by other students (67% vs 57%)

Girls from single-sex schools were also significantly less likely to report being hit or pushed by other students, having belongings taken or destroyed, or being left out of things on purpose (MMG, 2020).

• Mission Australia’s 2020 Youth Survey revealed that even during the pandemic year, students at girls’ schools obtained higher scores than the female average in the key areas of mental health and overall life satisfaction. Students attending girls’ schools were less likely to be concerned about their personal mental health than the average female (37.2% vs 43.3%). They were also less likely to be concerned about bullying (9.6% vs 15.1%) and more likely to report feeling happy or very happy with their life as a whole (61.3% vs 54.4% of all girls) (Mission Australia, 2020).

• Two recent reports from the United Kingdom have found that the vast majority of girls are sexually harassed and bullied at school, and that the evidence shows that one-quarter of girls at co-ed schools have experienced unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school (Ofsted, 2021; National Education Union and UK Feminista, 2017).

• A 2016 British Parliament inquiry found that girls in co-ed high schools are subjected to daily sexual harassment (including 29% 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 (Commons Select Committee [United Kingdom], 2016, September 13).

• A 2016 Australian study, based on a survey administered at five co-educational schools in Adelaide, has confirmed previous research findings that sexual bullying behaviours are commonplace within co-ed schools but that they are often not reported because measures used to quantify bullying in schools do not specifically ask questions about sexual harassment or sexually-toned bullying (Shute, Owens & Slee, 2016; also see, Shute, 2017).

• A 2015 report by Britain’s Institute of Physics found that co-educational schools need to do more to tackle sexist banter and attitudes that discourage girls from pursuing careers in science. While the Opening Doors report found that all schools had policies to counter racist, sexist and homophobic language, sexist language was often dismissed as “harmless banter” though “many of the students, particularly girls, did not see it as such” and that “in extreme cases, it verged on bullying” (p. 13). Some of the other findings include that:

  • “Some schools, mindful of bad behaviour from boys, had policies of alternate boy-girl seating, effectively using the girls as buffers to keep the boys apart. In general the girls noticed and resented this policy” (p. 12).
  • While girls had access to the full range of sporting activities at some schools, in other schools “girls resented being prevented from taking certain sports considered unsuitable for them” (p. 19).

• A US study found that less than 1% of female students in single-sex schools experience bullying, compared with 21% of female students in co-ed schools (Johnson & Gastic, 2014, p. 128). In addition, girls at single-sex schools are not only more likely to be gender nonconforming than girls at co-ed schools (p. 134), but also “significantly less likely to be bullied” (p. 133) for preferring ‘masculine’ sports (including football, baseball and basketball) over ‘feminine’ sports and activities (including softball, cheerleading, choir and art classes) (p. 129). In fact, say the authors, “single-sex schools emerge as a protective factor for female gender nonconforming girls” (p. 126).

• A Korean study exploring whether the gender composition of the school environment affects the bullying experiences and behaviours of adolescents has found a lower frequency of aggressive behaviours in girls’ schools, leading the study authors to suggest that the presence of boys may have a negative impact on bullying in boys’ and co-educational schools (Gee and Cho, 2014, pp 20-26). Kevin Gee and Rosa Minhyo Cho also suggest that boys in co-educational schools may be more likely to use aggression to assert their social dominance over girls, and that girls in co-educational schools might adopt the more aggressive norms of boys, placing these girls at higher risk of engaging in and experiencing peer aggression (pp.22, 23).

• The 2014 ‘Steeped in Learning’ report found that 97.0% of girls attending girls’ schools in the US felt safe at their schools. Of these, 69.4% strongly agreed that they felt safe, compared to 55.1% of girls at co-ed independent schools and just 17.1% of girls at co-ed public schools. In addition, 88.6% of girls at girls’ schools reported feeling comfortable “being themselves” at their school. Of these 43.7% strongly agreed that they felt comfortable. In contrast, 35.4% of girls at co-ed independent and 18.3% of girls at co-ed public schools strongly agreed that they felt comfortable at their school (Holmgren, 2014, p. 6).

• American researcher Laura Hart (2015) found that all-girl classes may provide non-academic benefits that help girls through the critical middle school years when they are struggling with social interactions relating to adolescence. Hart’s three-year study found that “student satisfaction with school was significantly higher for participants in the single-gender group” (p. 42). Overall (pp. 42-43):

  • 77.3% indicated that being in the all-girl classes had helped them “learn better”.
  • 70.6% said that behaviour in the all-girl classes was better than in mixed-gender classes.
  • 86.6% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I enjoyed being in the single-gender classroom this year”.
  • 73.3% agreed or strongly agreed that they would recommend all-girl classes to new students.

Hart concluded that “a single-gender classroom environment where girls are comfortable and satisfied with their learning experience may ultimately prove to be more beneficial than any instructional strategy” (p. 44).

• A 2018 Korean study found that girls in co-educational high schools are more likely to exhibit disordered weight control behaviours — such as fasting, dieting or self-induced vomiting — than girls attending single-sex high schools (Kim et al., 2018).

• An earlier study by Kim and Kawachi (2016) found that single-sex schooling in Korea is associated with adolescents underestimating their weight, whereas students at co-educational schools overestimate their weight. Young people who overestimate their weight are more likely to engage in unhealthy weight behaviours and eating disorders (Kim & Kawachi, 2016, pp. 1-2).

• A 2016 study by Victoria Cribb and Dr Anne Haase from Bristol University (UK) found that girls in co-educational schools have lower self-esteem and feel more pressure to be thin than girls in single-sex schools (p. 111). It was also found that single-sex schools encourage “improved self-esteem, psychological and social wellbeing in adolescent girls” (p. 112).

• Similarly, a 2012 American study found that young women at a women’s college (university) had more positive body ideals than young women at  a mixed-sex college (Spencer, Barrett, Storti & Cole, 2012, p. 469). The researchers suggested that the endorsement of feminist views in single-sex women’s colleges encourages positive self-image and counters gender stereotyping, and that this may help protect young women from the pressure to be thin (p. 477).

• A 2017 a study by Iceland’s Reykjavik University found that students attending Hjalli primary schools — where girls and boys are caught separately for most of the day in order to counter stereotyped gender roles and behaviour — demonstrate “increased gender equality awareness” compared with students at co-educational public schools. In addition, a higher percentage of Hjalli students think that parents should be equally responsible for family and home duties (Gísladóttir & Pálsdóttir, 2017. Also see, Smith, 2018).

• A 2018 University of California, Los Angles (UCLA) study of nearly 6,000 incoming female university students found that graduates of all-girl schools are more likely be involved in volunteering and community activities, take part in political activities, be supportive of environmental and societal improvements, and believe that promoting racial understanding is a “very important” or “essential” goal (Riggers-Piehl, Lim & King, 2018).

• A study of single-sex public schools prepared for the US Department of Education found that there are many social and emotional benefits for girls who attend single-sex schools. Researchers using observational techniques found that: Site visitors observed more positive academic and behavioral interactions between teachers and students in the single-sex schools than in the comparison coed [sic] schools” (Riordan et al., 2008, p. x). In the same study, researchers systematically reviewed the literature on single-sex education and concluded that: “Overall there were more social-emotional outcomes favoring single-sex schools” (Riordan et al., 2008, p. xi).

• The 2014 ‘Steeped in Learning’ report (US) states that: “Students attending all-girl schools experience higher levels of support from their classmates, teachers, and administrators than do their female peers at coeducational [sic] public schools”, with 89.9% feeling supported by other students and 94.6% feeling supported by their teachers. In co-ed public schools, 73.1% felt supported by other students and 84.1% felt supported by their teachers (p 8).