Do our views about co-ed versus single-sex schools hold up?

Private school vs public school

Parents are now paying more than $37,000 per annum for year 12 students at some of Sydney's elite private schools. But is there an academic benefit to paying all that cash?

“You have to choose between the academic or the social,” a teacher from a single-sex school told a group of anxious parents. It was one of those “Where are you sending your kid to secondary school?” conversations that seem to have become a fixture of my social chit-chat, and we’d gotten around to the topic of co-ed versus single sex schooling.

The prevailing wisdom is that, while co-ed schooling might be good for teaching boys and girls the finer points of how to interact and work with the opposite sex, their academic performance suffers. This applies to girls in particular.

Once teenage hormones kick in, so the theory goes, boys and girls are going to be a distraction to each other.

'Once teenage hormones kick in, so the theory goes, boys and girls are going to be a distraction to each other.'
'Once teenage hormones kick in, so the theory goes, boys and girls are going to be a distraction to each other.' Photo: Alamy

But do our views about co-ed versus single-sex schooling hold up? Perhaps not. Firstly, the whole “distraction" assumption assumes that all our kids are straight, so right off the bat, there are some holes in that theory.

There is some suggestion that girls might not reach their academic potential because boys tend to dominate the classroom. And there is some research to show that girls do indeed do better in the traditionally “masculine” subjects of maths and science when they don’t have boys around to monopolise a teacher’s attention.

As reported in TIME magazine, in a 2015 article about the hidden gender bias in classrooms, “[T]eachers spend up to two thirds of their time talking to male students; they also are more likely to interrupt girls but allow boys to talk over them.”

While I tend to support “real world” conditions of co-education, the thought of my daughters falling through the cracks because of a rowdy boy-dominated classroom puts a couple of ticks in the pros column for single-sex education.

But is this really the case? Research published in this month’s edition of the academic journal Sex Roles suggests that when you factor in prior academic attainment, the differences in boys’ and girls’ academic performance between single sex and mixed sex classrooms goes away.

The researchers, led by Charlotte R. Pennington, looked at the results of 266 secondary school students. Students were divided into single-sex and mixed classes, making sure that there was an equivalent number of high, medium and low achievers, as judged by prior academic performance, in each class.

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At the end of the year, students undertook the same standardised tests for science, maths, information and communications technology (ICT), drama, music, English, and foreign language.

When the test results were compared with the childrens’ academic scores from the previous year, researchers found that the kids in the single-sex classrooms did not perform any better than those in the mixed classes.

Regardless of mixed or single-sex class type, good kids did well, mid-level kids achieved mid-level results and the strugglers still struggled. The only noticeable difference was that girls in the mixed-gender classes performed slightly better in the humanities subjects than their peers in the single-sex classes.

What gives? Why have we been told that single-sex schools are better for girls’ educational outcomes? The reason is that higher performing kids are more likely to go to those schools, and therefore skew the data.

The view that single-sex schools are better for children’s academic performance seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents who prize academic performance above all else and are perhaps anxious about their child’s academic results, will tend to choose single-sex schooling over the co-ed variety. In the process, this boosts the overall performance of single sex schools.

When it comes to educational attainment, it’s not the schooling model that matters, it’s the kid. Which means we can all take a deep breath and stop fretting about our kids’ educational outcomes. Instead, our secondary school decisions can be based on the sort of values we want our kids to graduate with, and what we want for our kids socially.

And the social side of education shouldn’t be discounted. While so much discussion around education focuses on cognitive development above all else, and the social aspects are regarded as a “nice to have”, the capacity to use and apply knowledge is just as, if not more, important.

Looking ahead to the workplaces of the future, there is no point being the smartest person in the room if you have never learned how to communicate and relate to your colleagues — both male and female.

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