No benefit to single-sex education, Australian Psychological Society Congress to be told

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A review of 1.6 million students has failed to find any advantages to single-sex education, says the former president of American Psychological Association Diane Halpern. 

Professor Halpern, who has spent three decades researching the psychology of single-sex education, will present the keynote address at the Australian Psychological Society Congress in Melbourne on Wednesday. 

The former psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College will draw on the work of her American Psychological Association colleague, Janet Hyde, who undertook a meta-analysis of 184 studies of more than 1.6 million students from K-12 schools between 1968 and 2013. 

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"Proponents of single-sex schools argue that separating boys and girls increases students' achievement and academic interest," Dr Hyde said in the 2014 study. "Our comprehensive analysis of the data shows that these advantages are trivial and, in many cases, non-existent."

On Wednesday, Professor Halpern will tell the Australian audience that there is no research to show that boys and girls learn differently in the classroom and we need to reconsider the impact of gender biases in single-sex education. 

"We don't have sex segregated workplaces so why would we have sex segregated schools?," she said. 

"After graduation, virtually everyone will work for and with females and males - students need to learn mutual respect and the social skills of interacting. They need to learn how to interact co-operatively and competitively and these are important things that are learned in school - school is the only place where certain kinds of interactions occur." 

Professor Halpern has been a long-time advocate of co-ed schooling, appearing as a key witness in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against a single-sex classes being run in a Louisiana school. Proponents of co-ed schooling in the US have fought against the establishment of segregated single-sex institutions, which are far rarer in the US compared to Australia. 

Professor Halpern's comments also draw on the earlier work of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which reviewed the performance of 15-year-olds in single-sex and co-ed schools in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).


The OECD found that while there were significant differences between the performances of students in Australian single-sex and co-ed schools, the gains made by single-sex schools were all but wiped out after socio-economic factors were taken into account. 

The report debunked the widely held notion that girls tend to do better in a single-sex environment. 

But research posted by the Alliance of Girls Schools of Australasia disputes the claims.

"Students need to learn mutual respect": The former president of American Psychological Association Diane Halpern.
"Students need to learn mutual respect": The former president of American Psychological Association Diane Halpern.  Photo: Martin Klimek

They have highlighted a 2014 report by the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation that examines NAPLAN data for junior secondary students and tertiary entrance scores for high school students. 

"The effect associated with single-sex schooling ranged from 0.08 standard deviations for junior secondary students to 0.2 standard deviations for senior secondary students," the report found, highlighting a small, but not insignificant academic advantage in NSW single-sex schools. 

"[This finding] warrants further investigation as to reasons why students appear to achieve more in these schools than in co-educational schools," the report stated. 

Teachers say they are not equipped to recognise and respond to the behaviours they are seeing.
Teachers say they are not equipped to recognise and respond to the behaviours they are seeing. Photo: AFR

Professor Halpern told Fairfax Media the results reflected the fact that single-sex schools were good schools, not that they were single-sex. 

"The single-sex students are from higher [socio-economic] groups and they would have done very well regardless of they were they were," she said.