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.
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