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

School Debating: Where future leaders forge their skills

“If you get involved in debating and public speaking you will definitely go on to rule the world. Guaranteed.”
— Craig Reucassel, comedian and NSW Department of Education Ambassador for Speaking Competitions

Last week, Joe Nimmo of the BBC, asked, “Why have so many Prime Ministers gone to Oxford University?” Of Britain’s 54 elected heads of government, 27 were educated at Oxford making the university enormously politically influential. The answer, Nimmo concluded, lies in the prestigious Oxford Union debating society.  

Incorporating both parliamentary and persuasive speaking styles of debating, the Oxford Union is renowned for its competition success and defence of free speech. Its adherence to the House of Commons debating format makes it “the place where these parliamentarians of the future cut their teeth and learn how to debate,” Harrison Edmonds, president of the Oxford University Conservative Association, told the BBC. Continue reading “School Debating: Where future leaders forge their skills”

A matter of principals: great leaders lead to great schools

If you have ever pondered what it takes to be an excellent school administrator, researchers have now devised a formula for the perfect principal.

As part of their How Principals Affect Schools study, University of Melbourne economists Mike Helal and Michael Coelli rendered the elements of school leadership as a mathematical equation.

The formula seeks to calculate a principal’s impact on a school by accounting for variables such as student quality, socio-economic factors and random events like funding cuts.

The math may be complicated but the formula’s solution is simple. Coelli and Helal conclude that “the most effective principals are able to establish a coherent set of goals for the school’s workforce, to encourage professional interaction among staff, and to promote the professional development of staff.”

While the efforts of individual teachers are of utmost importance, together, these three staff management techniques are more likely to bring about an improvement to students’ academic results because “a high-quality principal can affect outcomes among all students in a school,” the researchers determined.

Dr Coelli told the Canberra Times: “It’s important that new principals are told that if you want to have these effects, particularly on literacy and numeracy, these are the kind of things you need to do,” Dr Coelli said. “Leadership is extremely important.”

This is where independent schools enjoy a distinct advantage. Being autonomous and answerable only to their own board and school community, independent schools are able to offer their principals significant professional latitude.

Principals in independent schools hire their own staff according to their school’s unique criteria to ensure the best fit between students and teachers; they shape a school’s professional development programs in consultation with individual teachers; and they enjoy the flexibility to attract and retain the best candidates from throughout Australia and overseas.

Independent school principals hold a unique managerial role combining the jobs of chief executive, human resources manager and lead educator. They are invested with an immense responsibility but are also directly accountable to schools and stakeholders.

While this may seem like a lot of eggs for just one basket, the independent sector’s emphasis on autonomy and strong leadership is not misplaced.

The 2015 School Autonomy and Student Achievement report had three key findings:

* Higher levels of school autonomy are associated with higher levels of student achievement.

* The focus of autonomy should be on professional practice.

* The most powerful evidence linking school autonomy and student achievement is seen in the work of principals to build professional capacity through staff selection, professional development and appraisal; setting priorities on the basis of data about performance; and communication of purpose, process and performance.

Independent school principals agree.

Robert Phipps, principal of the Hills Grammar School in Sydney’s Northwest wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald last year: “After 40 years of experience as an educator there is no doubt in my mind that teacher quality is the single most important factor impacting student learning and development, with ongoing professional learning being the main determinant of teacher quality. While independent schools will approach staff professional development in different ways they all invest heavily in it because they know it directly improves teaching and thereby the learning outcomes of their students.”

Phillip Heath, head of Barker College, echoes those sentiments, also in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that is the role of the principal at an independent school “to relentlessly pursue improvements in teaching and learning, to hold people accountable to their best possible selves and to help them achieve their absolute best rather than settle only for what is ‘good enough’.”

Read more:

How Principals Affect Schools – Mike Helal and Michael Coelli, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, June 2016

The formula for the perfect principal – Henrietta Cook and Craig Butt, Canberra Times, June 2, 2016

School Autonomy and Student Achievement Case Studies in Australia – Professor Emeritus Brian J Caldwell, University of Melbourne. June 11, 2015

Professional learning the key – Robert J Phipps, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015

The role of principals – Phillip Heath, Sydney Morning Herald, March 3, 2015