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

Wenona: where girls grow into Renaissance women

“I have 49 sisters whom I love and I’ve developed unique relationships with each of them,” says Lily Collins, a Year 12 student at Wenona on Sydney’s Lower North Shore.

Lily arrived at Wenona from Scone in the Upper Hunter Valley two years ago. Close quarters living came as a shock at first, she says: “I felt like I was constantly stimulated with people always around and after my first term in boarding I was exhausted.”

But as strangers became friends, Lily came to realise that she loves

Renaissance women … Wenona Year 12 students Charlotte Doughty and Lily Collins.

communal living. Being surrounded by girls who know and care for her is a great source of support and the best aspect of boarding is that “there is always someone to talk to when you’re feeling a bit sad.”

With new friends, come new experiences. Getting to know her extended boarding family has been eye-opening, Lily says.

“Hearing their life stories and perspectives really challenged my initial way of thinking when I started at Wenona and helped me grow as an individual.”

Flourishing through friendship is a common theme at Wenona with fellow Year 12 student Charlotte Doughty reporting a similar experience.

A day girl since Year 5, Charlotte says she was immediately won over by Wenona’s special spirit.

“From the first day I started, I fell in love with the school and the girls,” she says. “There’s something within our community, which I believe is really quite unique, that has really influenced me.”

Charlotte says Wenona has made her a more “positive and spirited” person thanks to the wonderful relationships she’s formed there and the school community’s exuberant compassion.

“A couple of years ago when Dr Scott had a health scare, our entire school came together to make a music video for one of her favourite songs and theme from the previous year, Brave. Everything else seemed insignificant, while we all banded together to sing for our principal to express our love and hope for her.”

Both girls nominate the school’s Renaissance Studies class as their favourite subject. Developed to encourage critical thinking, the course sees students consider a range of ethical, political and religious matters as they pertain to contemporary life.

Thinking deeply about global issues and questioning their own beliefs is surprisingly exhilarating, the girls find. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to engage with life beyond school in a situation where we are treated and challenged as adults,” Charlotte says.

Studying different belief systems is fascinating, Lily says, and considering one’s own problems in a global context, helps to “put your stress or fears in perspective”.

Wenona’s focus on the bigger picture is seen throughout the school, Lily says. From teachers urging students to read newspapers on a daily basis to the varied backgrounds of her fellow boarders, “everything contributed to my increasing awareness of the world around me and now I love to know what is playing out on the world stage, actively making myself aware of global events so I can engage with the other girls on a different level than just social conversations,” she says.

Next year, Lily is looking forward to studying a Bachelor of Science degree while Charlotte thinks she may take a gap year to travel and do volunteer work overseas. On her return, she hopes to study Economics or International Relations at university with the ultimate goal of working toward the betterment of society.

“I’ve always been interested in International Relations,” Charlotte says. “I believe it could lead me into a place that I find interesting and where I can make a meaningful contribution through my work.”

Spoken like a true Renaissance woman.

A guaranteed path to Sydney University

Sydney University offers international students a guaranteed path into its undergraduate degree programs through the University of Sydney Foundation Program (USFP) delivered by Taylors College, located at Waterloo in central Sydney.

The alternative entry method caters to students who need to improve their English or academic results in order to meet the requirements of their preferred university course. Students who complete the course to the appropriate standard are automatically offered at place at the University of Sydney.

In 2015, 88.4% of the program’s 460 graduates went on to study at the University of Sydney and all graduates were offered a place at an Australian tertiary education institution.

“USFP is a really good program designed not only to allow you to study at a prestigious uni, but also to be able to do well in it.”
Andrew, Taiwan – USFP grad now studying a Bachelor of Commerce / Law at the University of Sydney.

Of the students who progressed to the University of Sydney, just over half were accepted into Business or Economics degrees, 64 graduates chose Engineering, nine were accepted into the university’s medical school and six students embarked on combined law degrees.

The balance enrolled in Nursing, Veterinary Science, Pharmacy, Applied Science, Education, Architecture, and Music and Visual Arts.

Underlying this excellent result is the college’s focus on teaching the key learning skills that students need to excel academically and succeed at university, says international marketing manager James Flannagan.

“We have an extensive and strong relationship with the University of Sydney. Our programs are university-approved and designed to ensure that the students are learning specifically for their degree path.”

Experienced staff and excellent support mechanisms are also key components of USFP.

“All our teachers are experts in their subject areas and specialise in international education. We provide counselling in all our programs and one-on-one tutoring sessions. We prepare our students professionally, personally and academically for university,” Mr Flannagan says.

Taylors College was founded in 1920 to provide coaching for University of Melbourne students. It accepted its first students from China in 1925 and opened its Sydney campus in 1936. Further expansion to Perth and Auckland followed and today the college is part of the Study Group network of international education providers.

Over its long history of teaching foreign students, Taylors College has developed a unique approach.

“We don’t have student uniforms. Kids are treated as adults and encouraged to take responsibility for themselves and become independent learners within a nurturing school environment,” says Mr Flannagan.

“Students are all international, with a large cultural mix from throughout Asia, but we have students from all over the world. By integrating them fully into college life we can support them in dealing with the cultural change. It’s essential that students develop social networks to help them navigate a new cultural landscape and to help prepare them for the university experience,” Mr Flannagan says.

The college offers a personalised, flexible education experience with three streams in the USFP:

* Standard Program — five subjects, 25 hours per week of class time, over 40 weeks.

* Standard Intensive Program — the fast track to university. Students take eight subjects and class time is increased to 30 hours per week to enable course completion in 30 weeks.

* Extended Program — incorporating a pre-foundation course of 19 weeks followed by the Standard Program, this 59-week course is delivered over three semesters.

Academically gifted students with fluent English skills are encouraged to consider the University of Sydney High Achievers Preparation Program. This 17-week course instills high-level academic competencies along with teaching specific study topics aligned to students’ intended Bachelor Degrees.

The USFP is available only to international students but local students are very welcome in the senior High School stream at Taylors College. Comprising Years 10-12, Taylors High School is a university-preparation academy that applies the same methodologies as the USFP to ensure that students achieve to their highest potential in the HSC.

For more information about Taylors College, see: or come meet school representatives in person at the Sydney Independent Schools Expo at Luna Park, Sunday, March 12, 2017.