What do our three most recent male Prime Ministers - Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd - have in common? Certainly not much of their politics. They all did, however, at one point or another, attend single-sex schools: Sydney Grammar School, St Ignatius' College Riverview, and Marist Brothers College Ashgrove, respectively.
They might've been better off if they hadn't. There's already much evidence that suggests co-educational schooling is just as good, if not preferable to same-sex schooling. It continues to accumulate: the latest piece is that boys have improved reading scores when they've learned in the presence of more girls.
This was contained in a study published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement, which surveyed the reading test scores of over 200,000 15-year-olds from more than 8,000 mixed-sex schools globally.
It determined that boys' scores were 'significantly better' when their cohort was at least 60 per cent female.
Study authors, including lead researcher Dr Margriet van Hek from Utrecht University, extrapolated that as boys are heavily influenced by their learning environment, the more girls there are, potentially the better they learn. This is because academically, girls are known to concentrate better and be more motivated.
“Boys’ poorer reading performance really is a widespread, but unfortunately also understudied, problem. Our study shows that the issue is reinforced when boys attend schools with a predominantly male student population," van Hek asserted.
“Yet schools can help improve this situation by ensuring a balanced gender distribution in their student population.”
The study follows an ACER analysis of NAPLAN data, released in late September. Striking another blow to single-sex schools, it revealed that long-term, their students perform no better than their co-educational counterparts. In fact, it ascertained that single-sex students' reading scores declined compared to those of co-eds.
Author, Senior Research Fellow Katherine Dix, posited that this divide may soon be moot: ABS statistics have tracked a steady decrease in independent same-sex school enrolment since 1985. If this continues at the current rate, these schools won't exist by 2035.
Anna Dabrowski, for one, won't be crestfallen. The academic in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and the School of Languages and Linguistics, both at UniMelb, is vocally opposed to single-sex schooling. She found the results of van Hek's study "quite interesting" as, unlike other studies, it accounted for children's parents' education levels and economic statuses. Based on research including this study, as well as for personal reasons, she thinks co-ed is best.
"There are social disadvantages when we segregate kids for any reason...we're not preparing students for life beyond school," she said.
"There isn't any research to suggest that single sex education is beneficial past the age of primary school."
The Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia (AGSA) disagrees. "Research shows that there are 'positive effects of single-sex schooling' in Australia in relation to numeracy and literacy testing and tertiary entrance scores," it provides on its website.
AGSA Executive Officer Loren Bridge noted that a recent University College London working paper on single-sex South Korean schools that went co-ed found that students' academic results fell following the change. According to her, the study represents the research"gold standard", as unlike the aforementioned analyses, this one entailed control groups. She also pointed to a 2016 UniMelb working paper, The attitudes of boys and girls towards science and mathematics as they progress through school:
"[Dr Ryan's] research found that Year 8 girls in single-sex schools are more likely to enjoy and be confident in mathematics than girls in co-ed schools.
"This gender stereotyping sees girls as young as 4 and 5 feeling less powerful than boys (so much for socialisation in a co-ed world)!," she annotated.
Dabrowski, on the contrary, says Australian statistics that suggest single-sex schools are academically advantageous generally fail to control for the fact that the vast majority of them are independent, and are therefore better resourced.
Bridge essentially admitted as much, acknowledging that academically, single-sex and co-ed schools are roughly equal. But her organisation claims that single-sex schooling confers social benefits to students that co-ed schools, by their nature, can't provide. She suggested that, contrary to co-ed schooling advocates' views, single-sex schooling encourages gender equality. "When we look at girls in particular, we're also interested in their pathway to C-suite...," she said.
"What [the 2014 meta-analysis of co-ed and single-sex schools] did show was that girls in co-ed schools are definitely more gender-stereotyped than girls in single sex schools. [They're] less likely to study STEM, for instance...they're less likely to take up leadership roles...they feel less confident about things like maths or even asking questions in class, they tend to be quieter, more subdued. Their participation in sport is much less."
Conversely, Dabrowski believes that segregating children based on gender undermines the current push for gender equality: "What message are we sending to kids if we say, 'girls, you can only succeed in sports, etc. if you're away from boys?' And what message are we sending to boys if we say, 'girls are distracting'?"
She pointed to the growing trend of single-sex schools becoming co-ed to support her perspective. Barker College in Sydney's leafy upper north shore is one such school. Late last year, the mostly boys' school (it is already co-ed for years 11 and 12) announced it will be incrementally going fully co-ed. The process will start next year for Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten , and will be complete by 2022.
In an explanatory video, school head Phillip Heath appeared to echo one of Dabrowski's comments: "...we are preparing our students for a future that will be far less defined by gender roles than in the past."
"In the past segregated education tended to channel young men and women into gender specific careers and this is no longer the case," Melissa Brady, Barker's Director of Coeducation Transition added, in a statement provided to Education Review.
St Andrew's Cathedral School in the Sydney CBD is another former all-boys turned co-ed school. Principal Dr John Collier said the school transitioned in 2008 to benefit students' social and emotional development.
“In my 44 years of teaching, I have found that each gender seems to complement the other; the energy and vitality of the boys, who are so full of beans, seems to rub off on the relational nature of girls – and vice versa,” he said in a statement.
Exceeding Heath and Dabrowski's remarks, Collier offered that a co-ed school provides a safe space for students with non-traditional genders.
Yet Bridge thinks the real motivation for these schools' gender inclusiveness is largely financial.
"The whole world remains gender-unequal," she said. "It's not a gender-equal world in schools either."
Barker denies this: "This isn’t a surprising argument when they are the ones who stand to lose students," Barker's Brady wrote.
"Using publicly available data from the My School website, you can see that Barker has a very low debt to student ratio when compared to similar schools and we’re about to embark on a very large capital works program. Hardly the sign of a school in financial difficulties."
So, will Australia's future leaders likely attend single-sex or co-ed schools? We'll have to watch this ever-changing, ever more conflicted space.Do you have an idea for a story?
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