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Single-sex schools: for whom the death knell tolls?

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 paperThe 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.

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One comment

  1. The Dutch study published in School Effectiveness and School Improvement (mentioned above) only analysed data for boys and girls in co-educational schools. The study makes no findings or comments on single-sex schools, except to note that the data for single-sex schools was excluded from the study.

    The finding that boys’ reading performance is higher in co-ed schools where there are at least 60% girls may be, said the researchers, because of the positive effect of girls on classroom processes and the schoolwide learning climate. As they note, previous studies have found that girls enjoy reading more, are more frequent readers, and are more motivated to perform well at school.

    On the other hand, said the Dutch researchers, boys are more likely than girls to exhibit social and behavioural problems. Studies show that classes containing a larger proportion of boys are more likely to experience disruptions. Boys perform better in co-ed schools with a larger proportion of girls because these schools have a more study-oriented culture.

    The Dutch study also notes, however, that boys make relatively large learning gains in well-organised classrooms. Given that their study did not include single-sex schools, many of which are among the highest performing schools in Australia and New Zealand in terms of PISA scores, numeracy and literacy testing, and tertiary entrance results (including for boys in reading and humanities subjects), this suggests that the inclusion of single-sex schools would have led to different conclusions for both boys and girls.

    The ACER report (also mentioned above), which analysed numeracy and literacy (NAPLAN) data for Years 3, 5 and 7, found that boys and girls at single-sex schools achieved higher scores than co-ed students even when socio-economic status was taken into account. Year 7 boys at single-sex schools were, on average, 1.6 terms ahead of co-ed students (including girls) in reading and 3.9 terms ahead in maths. Girls at single-sex schools were 4.2 terms ahead of co-ed students in reading and 2.8 terms ahead in maths.

    The Dutch study only considered PISA reading scores, where girls have long outperformed boys. The results for science and mathematics, which form part of the STEM fields in which girls and women are grossly underrepresented were not analysed. Indeed, the researchers noted this as one of the “drawbacks” of the study, along with the fact that students were not randomly assigned to schools or classes (the gold standard of educational research), and nor could they control for students’ prior academic achievement at primary school.

    The most recent Australian statistics show that only 5.9% of Year 12 girls study physics in Australia compared with 21.0% of boys. In girls’ schools, however, the lack of gender stereotyping leads to significantly larger numbers of girls taking advanced maths, physics and other sciences. For instance, at Brisbane Girls Grammar School, 90% of the 2016 Year 12 cohort took at least one science subject, 25% took physics, and 40% are now undertaking a science-based university degree.

    Finally, it should be noted that a 2017 study led by Professor Christian Dustmann of University College London, ‘Why single-sex schools are more successful’, has come to exactly the opposite conclusion that than of the Dutch researchers. Dustmann’s study of academic results in South Korea, where students are randomly assigned to single-sex and co-ed senior high schools (for Years 10-12), found not only that students at single-sex schools significantly outperformed those at co-ed schools on university entrance exams from 1996 to 2009, but also that academic results for both boys and girls dropped when some single-sex schools were converted to co-ed. In fact, once classes changed from 100% female to 50% female, girls’ achievement in languages (Korean and English) fell by 8-15% of a standard deviation. Dustmann and his colleagues concluded that “the net effect of having single-sex peers for three years is strongly positive for girls” and that “the conversion of pupil gender type from single-sex to coed leads to worse academic outcomes for both boys and girls”.

    Jan Richardson
    Director of Research
    Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia

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