Single sex versus co-ed schooling is back in the news with the announcement from The Armidale School, a traditional, private, all boy school, that it is turning co-ed. Of course there are many opinions about it, you probably have your own. So, as someone who has written extensively on the issue, here is mine.
I’m dismayed when, as in the case of The Armidale School, the announcement to adopt coeducation is put forward on economic grounds, in the media at least, rather than being driven by educational ones.
I think the case has to be made strongly for educational reasons, and understood by all concerned, before the development from single sex to co-ed should proceed.
There are excellent educational reasons for choosing coeducational schools for your children in 21st century Australia, such as their capacity to offer a wide range of subjects in senior school, the classrooms tend to display greater diversity of outlook and opinions, friendship groups are less stratified and more fluid and students move relatively easily into mixed contexts such as university, work and social life generally.
However fifty years ago in Australia the situation was very different. In coeducational schools up until the late 20th century girls had significantly less access to education compared to boys. Before 1975 girls were much less likely than boys to complete school and to progress to university where they were vastly outnumbered by male students. All too often girls were channelled into domestic science and clerical courses rather than mainstream academic ones because the latter were thought to be too difficult for them. Consequently we are indebted to the tradition of girls only schools for establishing that girls can and do achieve highly in curriculum areas once reserved for males.
But now that education is widely viewed as the right of all young Australians much of the earlier gender discrimination has diminished, if not entirely disappeared. Education in mixed settings has been seen to prosper to the benefit of all concerned, teachers, parents, administrators and most particularly students.
I’ve been involved with several schools in the decision to become coeducational and in each case it has been a time of productive professional development for the school community. Teachers, in particular, have been ready to respond to new challenges and to rethink the tried and true pedagogical styles in terms of broader applications.
However one school, a previous single sex school, after about 3 months of coeducation sent out a newsletter to their school community with the headlines “It’s just the same … and we are all doing very well!” I must admit to considerable disappointment at this, given I had anticipated they would be relishing the change in their student body and enjoying different sorts of learning processes. I guess they were trying to be reassuring lest there were parents who were frightened and opposed any element of difference.
I must say although I am generally in favour of coeducation, I am not anti single sex schools. There are some very good single sex schools and also some very ordinary ones, just as there are good and bad coeducational schools. My position is that gender context is not the most important feature of schooling in terms of successful student achievement and positive attitudes to education. It just happens to be the feature most readily remarked on, and thus becomes a stalking horse for all sorts of other issues that are more likely to make a difference to student learning.
Schools with excellent teachers, concerned and involved parent community, inspired leadership and a good spread of relevant resources are to be found in both single sex and coeducational institutions. These features are much more important than the issue of gender context.
I think speculating on whether single sex schools have a future or not in the 21st century is rather pointless. Personally I don’t like or dislike them. However I do object when school leaders make the claim that girls in particular can only learn effectively in single sex schools. There is so much research showing this is not true, that girls are achieving at the top levels in coeducation schools.
So the often reported claim from all girl schools that “research shows ..” is a falsification of properly assembled evidence and/or deliberate mystification. Education is too important for such spurious claims.
You can read more about my research and views in my book “Beyond the Great Divide: Single Sex Schools or Coeducation?” UNSW Press available through Amazon and other local outlets
Judith Gill PhD is currently an Adjunct A/Professor in the School of Education at the University of South Australia where she worked for 25 years in teacher education. She has a longstanding interest in gender, work and education, particularly in terms of gender contexts of learning, which has involved investigating the experience of students in single sex school compared with coeducation, leading to the book Beyond the Great Divide: Single sex schooling or coeducation? (Sydney, UNSW Press 2004). Another line of enquiry is citizenship education as in the 2009 book Knowing Our Place: Children talking about identity, power and citizenship. (Routledge NY). More recently she has investigated engineering education, as seen in Gender Inclusive Engineering Education (NY Routledge 2009) and Challenging Knowledge, Sex and Power: Gender, work and engineering (NY Routledge 2014)