Co-ed Or Single Sex: What Will Work Best For Your Child?

Australia has perhaps the widest range of schooling options in the English-speaking world, including a comparatively high proportion of single-sex schools in both the public and non-government sectors.

While co-education is the predominant mode of schooling in the US and Canada, and is rapidly becoming so in the UK as well, gender-specific education remains a popular choice for Australian families.

Greater than the sum of its parts … consider all the elements to find the right school for your child.

This is especially true in NSW, where there are more than 130 single-sex schools throughout the independent, public and Catholic school systems.

Sydney-based parents have many excellent schools of either type to choose from and deciding between the two can present a real dilemma for many.

With a wealth of research on the topic available, there is a strong case to be made for the merits of each. Excellent academic results can be seen in both types of schools and there are no distinct drawbacks to either schooling style.

However, they do differ in terms of environment and social factors.

Research shows that girls are more likely to excel in music, maths, and science subjects when they attend single-sex schools. It is presupposed that the absence of boys may help girls to develop greater self-confidence in their abilities as well as making them more willing to speak out and perform for an audience.

Meanwhile, boys are said to benefit from male-centric teaching methods, which are more readily delivered in boys-only schools.

Dr Tim Hawkes, former headmaster of The King’s School in Parramatta, is a vocal advocate of gender-specific teaching methods.

“We must allow boys to be boys, we must allow them run in the playground and learn according to their learning style and not try to force them to adopt learning behaviours that are antithetical to the way they discover and learn new information,” he says.

On the co-ed side of the ledger, Barker College head Phillip Heath makes the point that the contemporary workplace is a mixed-gender environment and that schools need to prepare students for adult reality. Last year he announced that Barker College would be transitioning to a fully co-ed school by 2022 because “life is co-ed.”

“Barker College aims to prepare young people for much more than an ATAR or even for life at university. The real purpose of a school is to support students to reach their full potential in the workplace and in their communities, and in building strong relationships and families,” Mr Heath told the Hornsby Advocate.

Proponents of single-sex schooling counter this view with the argument that schools aren’t employment training centres but are instead, as MamaMia contributor Zoe Rochford wrote in defence of girls’ schools, “a safe place where developing brains can learn about things, both conceptually and practically, from a distance. They’re a recognition that our adolescents aren’t ready for the “real world” yet – that they still have learning and growing to do… If that means that single-sex education suits some brains better, the way it did mine, then so be it.”

That said, international research demonstrates that teacher quality is the most decisive factor in academic outcomes. Breaking down the various influences on education attainment including individual capability, family background, teachers, principal, peers and school, the data shows that 50 per cent of achievement can be attributed to a student’s academic potential and 30 per cent to teacher ability, with the other elements making up the balance.

It’s probably fair to say that a school is greater than the sum of its parts. No single institutional component will make or break a student’s education but the overall mix will have a huge impact.

In a column for the Manly Daily, Greg Whitby, executive director of schools for the Parramatta Catholic diocese, counsels parents against focussing solely on the single sex vs co-ed issue, advising them to look at the bigger picture.

“To put it simply, there are good single-sex schools but also some pretty poor ones. The same applies to co-educational schools.

“The best learning environments for young people are the ones that respond to their social, emotional and learning needs, that allow for diverse opinions, encourage healthy and positive relationships­ and ultimately reflect the diversity of the communities in which they live,” he writes.

When it comes to deciding between a single sex or coed school, there is no clear winner. Like many complex questions, the honest answer is: it depends. There are distinct advantages to each type of school but, ultimately, the best option is the one that suits your child the best.


Research versus the media: Mixed or single-gender settings? — Helen J Forgasz, Gilah C Leder and Calvin Taylor, Monash University, 2007

Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence? — John Hattie, University of Auckland, Australian Council for Educational Research, October 2003

Barker College becomes Sydney’s first private boys’ school to welcome girls across all grades — Jake McCallum, Hornsby Advocate, November 4, 2016

A prestigious school goes co-ed and suddenly everyone’s saying how evil single sex schools are. Rubbish. — Zoe Rochford, MamaMia, November 8, 2016

Dividing line not key to success – Greg Whitby, Manly Daily, February 18, 2017

Why school choice matters

Head start … Parents value the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.

Australia has one of the highest rates of private schooling in the OECD. Approximately 35 per cent of students attend a non-government school, either a Catholic systemic institution — 20 per cent — or an independent school — 15 per cent.

In NSW, the figure is slightly higher. More than 16 per cent of students attended an independent school in 2016 and in the high school years, this number jumped to 22 per cent. The OECD average for all students is 4 per cent, according to the latest available figures (2014).

Australian parents clearly value school choice but considering our comparatively good public education system, it’s reasonable to wonder why.

The Independent Schools Council of Australia (ISCA) argues that school choice gives parents the opportunity to find a school that best suits their children’s needs while supporting their values and academic preferences. “Independent schools reflect Australia’s social and ethnic diversity, offering choice for young Australians to be educated in schools with different cultural, religious and educational philosophies,” ISCA says.

With more than 300 independent schools in the Sydney metropolitan area alone, the sector is incredibly variegated, both culturally and academically.

The intensity of competition within the education sector incentivises better performance resulting in higher student achievement, ISCA says. “The freedom of students and their families to exercise choice in schooling is one of the most demanding forms of accountability for independent schools. Schools need to remain competitive to survive and consistently meet high parental expectations for the development of students.”

This effect is seen in the excellent HSC results attained by independent school students and in their greater take-up of higher education post-school.

A recent report by the Australian National University (ANU) reveals that students who complete Year 12 at an independent school are far more likely to attend university than their counterparts at Catholic and state schools.

The study found that 68.7 per cent of school leavers in the independent sector went onto university in 2016, whereas only 53.9 per cent of Catholic system and 45 per cent of public school graduates enrolled in a bachelor degree. This trend accelerated over the three-year period of the study with the rate of university attendance by private school students increasing while corresponding Catholic and public school figures fell or remained static.

Perhaps as a consequence of their greater propensity to attend university, private school kids grow into adults who earn more and live in wealthier suburbs. A 2016 Curtin University study of 17,000 Australians found that independent schooling results in an average wage premium of 15 per cent. Study author Mike Dockery concluded: “Overall, the results suggest that private schooling continues to be an important mechanism by which socio-economic advantage is transmitted between Australian generations, largely due to enhanced access to higher education.”

Another inducement for parents, especially those whose children hope to attend university overseas, is the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.

Available in NSW only through accredited independent schools, the IB has seen rapid growth since its introduction to Australia in 1978. In 2016, more than 2000 students from around the country received an IB diploma.

The key attraction of the IB is its international recognition and the academic rigour of the program. For scholarly students, the IB offers an unsurpassed opportunity to explore a broad range of subject matter in a course structure that promotes independent learning.

The IB’s global perspective and emphasis on critical thinking provides an excellent grounding for university and research has shown that IB students are more likely to attain entry to university and to complete a degree.

University isn’t for everyone though. Independent schools cater to children of all abilities and inclinations with a view to helping every child realise their full potential.

Private schools are well-known for nurturing gifted and talented students but many readers might be surprised to discover the range and depth of vocational education and training (VET) programs taught at these schools.

The Association for Independent Schools NSW website lists 16 Stage 5 VET courses offered at the HSC level ranging from Business Services and Information Technology to Construction and Sports Coaching.

These certificate courses are employment-oriented with students undertaking mandatory work experience to gain industry-recognised skills. School leavers are able to transition into the workplace directly after graduation giving them a valuable head start in their careers. Additionally, independent schools typically provide purpose-built facilities for VET students allowing them to complete their studies on campus with their peers instead of attending TAFE.

There are many reasons to choose an independent school and the greater the choice of schools, the better the options. It’s little wonder that so many Australian parents seize the opportunity to choose the best school for their child.


School statistics – Independent Schools Council of Australia website

School statistics – Association of Independent Schools NSW website

Datablog: Private schools are winning over Australian parents — Nick Evershed, The Guardian, March 11, 2014

Parents and School Choice — Independent Schools Council of Australia website

NSW Secondary Students Post-School Expectations and Destinations, 2016 Annual Report — Dr Paul Myers, Alexandra Parkes, Natasha Vickers, Andrew Ward, Esther Corcoran, ANU Social Research Centre, April 2017

Does private schooling pay? Evidence and equity implications for Australia — Associate Professor Mike Dockery, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Curtin University, October 27, 2016

International Baccalaureate (Australia) — International Baccalaureate website

VET Courses, Association of Independent Schools NSW website

7 Steps to choosing the right school for your child

A great school can make a world of difference to a child’s development but with so much choice available how can parents find the best option for their child and family circumstances? This step-by-step guide can help families think the matter through to get the best result.

Off to a great start … find the right school to set your child up for long-term success.
    1. Know what you want

While the curriculum is broadly similar throughout the country, schools vary widely in how they implement it. Most parents will have a view on how a school should approach teaching with considered opinions on everything from values and discipline to academic focus and extracurricular opportunities. Make a list of the qualities you associate with a good school to provide a basis for your search.

      1. Explore all the options

There are not only more schools than ever before but also a greater diversity of school styles. What was once a day school or boarding / religious or secular calculation now involves far more variables. Alternative education models such as Steiner, Montessori and John Colet achieve outstanding academic results while adhering to distinct educational philosophies but there is significant scholastic variance within the mainstream too. Schools have disparate strengths and areas of focus as well as differing cultural and religious emphases. Be aware of all your options to avoid overlooking an excellent opportunity.

      1. Determine your child’s needs

Even within the same family, children can have very different needs and learning styles. What suited the eldest perfectly might be all wrong for the youngest. A studied appraisal of your child’s personality, talents and intellectual acuity can provide a useful guide as to what kind of school would best suit them. Some questions to consider include:

      • Would your child benefit from more, or less, structure?
      • Is your child more likely to succeed in a co-ed or single sex setting?
      • Are there any areas in which your child requires more attention?
      • What kind of environment would best help your child to flourish academically and socially?
      • How can your child’s talents be best supported?
      • What is your child’s unique gift and how can it be fully realised?
      1. Be pragmatic

Every decision is constrained by practical considerations. Determining your priorities and limitations can help narrow your search to a list of feasible options. Expense is an obvious issue. Work out what your are able and, more importantly, willing to pay for your child’s schooling. Faith and cultural values are of utmost importance to many families while a school’s location and expectations of parental involvement are also vital. Daily routines have the greatest impact on family life so it’s important to take Saturday sport, extracurricular activities and commuting into account when looking at a school. Fortunately, driving your child to school is not usually necessary with most major independent schools operating school bus services throughout the metropolitan area. Check school websites for transport information to ensure that your child can easily get to a school.

      1. Look past the numbers

In considering these questions, you’ve probably formed a clear idea of what you’re looking for, now it’s a matter of finding it. The proliferation of schools data websites in recent years has made it relatively easy for parents to ascertain a school’s objective qualities, but the more difficult-to-assess subjective aspects are liable to be just as crucial in making a final decision. While NAPLAN scores, HSC results, student-teacher ratios and other statistics are all important indicators they only tell a part of the story. For the vast majority of students, success will depend on finding the right educational fit. An ideal starting point is to attend one of the many Independent Schools Expos held throughout the year. These popular events offer families an informal, pressure-free setting to meet with staff and students from a wide selection of Sydney’s top schools. For busy parents, the Expos are an unsurpassed opportunity to gain the greatest amount of firsthand knowledge in the least amount of time.

      1. Get up close and personal

Once you’ve settled on a short list, the next step is to visit your nominated schools. By this point, most parents will have undertaken extensive online research and will be well-informed about a school’s reputation and academic achievements but nothing can give you a better sense of a school’s suitability for your child than interacting with it personally. Open nights highlight the best aspects of a school and can be a fun outing for the whole family but, if you have the time, a school hours visit is more likely to reveal how the atmosphere and ethos is experienced by students on a daily basis. A walk around the grounds at lunchtime can convey a great deal about a school’s institutional values and overall disposition of its student body. This is also a good time to inquire about the organisational details that underpin a school’s culture. Some issues parents may want to discuss with a prospective school include:

      • Homework policies
      • Behaviour expectations
      • Discipline and standards
      • Anti-bullying measures
      • Professional development and support for teachers
      • School community vitality
      1. Finding the right fit

Finally; you’ve found a school that meets your criteria, your child is enrolled and you’re both looking forward to a great year. A new school will always involve a settling-in period but in the long term, US website advises parents to look out for these signs of a good fit between school and student:

    • Your child is happy to go to school in the morning and returns energised and happy at the end of the day
    • The pace of learning is right for your child: challenging but achievable
    • Your can see your child’s development progressing with each year
    • Your child feels appreciated at school
    • Your child is meeting their academic potential
    • Your child feels liked and accepted by their friendship group
    • School work and friends are important, but not all-consuming, parts of your child’s life