Global shifts in single-sex and coeducation

Over the history of many countries, single-sex schooling was once the norm, which can be traced back to traditional societal expectations that only boys would receive an education and to the different roles that men and women were expected to undertake in society.

As the right to education became more accepted in the 19th century, the dominant position of single-sex education was replaced by coeducation schooling, largely because it was more economical to run mass educational schools for boys and girls rather than for one sex.

Coeducation schooling has since remained predominant in many parts of the world, particularly in secular societies, although single-sex education regained some popularity in the 20th century in response to feminist concerns that the economic marginalisation of girls was linked to sexism in coeducational environments. In response to those concerns, single-sex education was promoted as a solution for empowering women, and corresponding policy shifts drove an increase in funding for single-sex schools.

In Australia, single-sex education has remained popular despite declining rates across most Western developed nations, as a result of a combination of sociocultural, economic, and political factors. The global shift back to coeducation, however, is also being experienced locally, albeit at slower rates. In 2017, the Australian Bureau of Statistics published data which forecast that at the present rate of decline, single-sex schools will not exist in Australia by 2035(1).

Understanding the shift back to coeducation

Single-sex schools often transition to coeducation for economic reasons. This is particularly relevant for boys’ schools that don’t enjoy the strength of parental or educator endorsement that girls’ schools do. We’ve likely all heard the urban myth that girls do better at girls’ schools and coed schools are better for boys, so opening up to both genders can be a useful competitive strategy for boys’ schools in terms of protecting and driving enrolments.

There is also a growing number of parents and educators who are questioning whether single-sex schools are fit for purpose in a world where traditional gender roles at work, home, and in the community are being challenged, and our workplaces are increasingly gender-balanced (or aim to be). It is argued that the demarcation of schools along gender lines is out of step with progressive environments.

There is also increasing awareness that traditional conceptions of gender are limiting and damaging for both boys and girls and men and women and the role that sex-segregated education plays in perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes. There is an increasing interest in the potential value of coeducation for disrupting problematic gender stereotypes and promoting the health, wellbeing, and security of both boys and girls, men and women, and also those that identify as gender non-conforming or gender diverse.

The academic benefits of single-sex vs coeducation schools

Although it is widely claimed that the sex composition of a school is related to student outcomes, this is not supported by the research. Over the last few decades, numerous studies have been conducted to compare the effects of coeducation compared with single-sex schooling on students’ academic, career, emotional, and social outcomes. The findings are equivocal.

When considering academic outcomes, whereas some studies demonstrate that students from single-sex schools achieve higher academic performance than students at coeducation schools, other studies report findings in the exact opposite direction. Other studies show that the sex composition of the school does not affect students’ academic outcomes.

Although there are fierce advocates on both sides of the debate, most of the balanced reviews of the research conclude that sex composition is less relevant to academic performance than other factors, such as socioeconomic and family background, school culture, quality of teaching, and individual differences in students (2). The research suggests independent single-sex schools dominate academic ranking tables in Australia primarily because of differences in standard of teaching, school leadership, parent support, and higher than average socioeconomic background rather than sex composition.

Subject choices and school composition

Similarly, research on the relationship between school composition and gender roles and subject choices is equivocal. While some studies show girls at single-sex schools hold less stereotyped ideas about what it means to be female and less stereotyped preferences for subject and career choices, other studies show no difference in the formation of gender stereotypes and subject choices compared to girls from coeducational schools, and other studies show girls from coeducational settings make less gendered subject choices. Overall, the research on subject choices, similar to studies on academic performance, suggests that the sex composition of the school is less relevant than other factors.

Consider, for example, the suggestion that girls are more likely to choose STEMM subjects and experience higher levels of self-efficacy in STEMM subjects at single-sex schools. While there are some studies that show these outcomes, there are others that don’t. Overall, there are enough conflicting studies to suggest that factors other than sex composition are more relevant. Are science teachers at the school mostly men or women? Does the school showcase women scientists in text choices? Do teachers challenge girls in class or hold back for fear of upsetting them?

The most compelling evidence that variables other than sex composition are more relevant for academic outcomes and subject choices are studies done in Korea, where student assignment to all-girls, all-boys or coeducational high schools is random. Those studies fail to show a causal relationship between sex composition and student subject choices and academic outcomes(3).

Self-esteem and school composition

Similar to the findings on academic outcomes and subject choices, the research on non-academic outcomes is inconclusive. Results of studies exploring how the sex composition of a school impacts girls’ self-esteem and self-concept, for example, are mixed. Sometimes girls do better on measures of self-esteem, gender identity, and body image in a coeducational environment, other studies show they do better in a single-sex environment, and other studies show no difference.

Gender relations and school composition

Although research on the relationship between school composition and gender relations is sparse, extant findings align with the research on intergroup relations more broadly. Positive contact theory prescribes that interactions between members of different social groups under certain conditions can have positive benefits for intergroup relations. Group members tend to develop more positive perceptions and fewer negative perceptions of other social groups when they mix with them in contexts that are conducive to promoting respect and equality. In the context of education, to the extent that coeducation settings provide opportunities for boys and girls to work together collaboratively and as equals, coeducation provides opportunities for strengthening gender equality not available in single-sex schools.

Summary of the research on student outcomes and school composition

To sum up the research, the arguments commonly put forward in support of single-sex schools in terms of beneficial academic, career, emotional or identity outcomes are not supported by the research, but there is no definitive advantage to coeducation either.

The research suggests that other factors are much more relevant for a range of student outcomes than the sex composition of the school. The only place where perhaps coeducation does have an advantage is for gender relations, but again, what is likely more relevant is not the sex composition of the school, per se, but the way gender and gender relations are promoted in a coeducational environment.

Leveraging coeducation settings to improve gender equality

Coeducation, per se, is not sufficient for promoting more positive outcomes but provides a setting that can be leveraged to improve gender relations and gender equality. The research suggests it’s not so much that boys and girls are in the same classroom but how they are mixing and working together in the classroom and the subconscious messages they receive about gender from teachers, the curriculum and texts, and the wider school infrastructure and community that impacts gender relations.

A study undertaken by Susan Bennett on three elite coeducational private schools in Melbourne explored the way that these schools had proactively fostered gender-inclusive settings(4). In all three schools, traditional gender hierarchies were disrupted at many points. Girls and boys worked together as colleagues and friends, developing equitable relationships, and gender stereotypes were regularly challenged.

The main takeaway from the research on this topic is that coeducational schools are not a silver bullet for gender relations—the school must work hard to ensure that it’s fostering a gender-inclusive environment. One of the long-standing arguments in support of single-sex schools is that coeducational settings can promote and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes through inequity in the classroom and wider school infrastructure, so it’s important for progressive coeducational schools to be aware of the potential for this and take active steps to prevent it.

The limitations of single-sex schools for girls

Studies in the 1960s and 70s raised the alarm about gender bias in classrooms. Researchers reported teachers spending more time challenging boys and not girls, girls being encouraged to explore some subject domains and not others, and boys receiving more teacher attention and airtime. It was believed that by segregating girls, this bias in teaching would disappear. It was theorised that in all-girls schools, girls would be empowered and that this would help to drive gender equity post-education. But the policymakers were overlooking two important limitations.

First, sexism can still exist in all-girls classrooms. Ingrained beliefs about sex differences in learning styles, abilities and preferences; biased curriculum and texts; and gender-biased symbols and power dynamics in the wider school setting can reinforce and promote gender stereotypes and short-change girls. Again, it’s not the sex composition of the school, per se, but the way gender is discussed and portrayed that matters for the development of gender stereotypes.

Advocates of single-sex schools also overlooked the limitations of empowering women in a context where boys are educated in a single-sex environment. While girls may potentially benefit from more female role models and a more equitable classroom at a single-sex school, unless boys are also learning that girls are equal to them, girls will continue to face traditional patriarchal systems and sexism outside of the school gates in their relationships and workplaces. Empowering women is a necessary goal, but it is not sufficient for realising gender equality. Boys must also learn to respect and value girls for girls and women to be safe, succeed and thrive over their lives. This can be achieved by actively fostering educational settings where boys work alongside girls as equals in gender-inclusive classrooms that sit within a broader cultural context that values and respects women.

All-boys schools and toxic masculinity

Although research on school composition and toxic masculinity is sparse, anecdotally, harmful ideas about masculinity that involve beliefs about the dominance of men and subjugation of women seem to develop more readily in an all-boys environment, particularly at elite boys’ schools(5). This is likely because traditional masculine values and traits like competition, aggression and dominance are actively promoted, valued and rewarded in these environments. There is also typically less attention paid to the values of equality and inclusion and few opportunities for genuine, respectful interactions between boys and girls. Toxic masculinity not only contributes to gendered violence but also to violence between men, as well as poor mental health outcomes and high suicide rates.

Understanding and challenging the appeal of single-sex schools

Despite limited evidence in favour of single-sex schools for student outcomes, the appeal of single-sex education is strong among educators and parents. This appeal is underpinned by conventional beliefs regarding differences between boys and girls that are widely perceived to be true but are, in fact, falsehoods.

For example, there has long been a narrative that girls are innately more verbal than boys and also a belief that boys have greater spatial ability than girls. Another falsehood is that boys learn better when active and girls are passive learners. Also, that boys are more comfortable with risk than girls, and boys are more comfortable being challenged than girls.

If you believe that boys and girls are innately different in their learning styles, preferences, and abilities, then it follows that you would also believe student outcomes can be optimised with tailored teaching and a curriculum that reflects those differences.

In reality, however, gender differences in learning styles, abilities, and other psychosocial attributes are small and insignificant. In fact, boys and girls are far more similar than different. Within a group of boys or a group of girls, there is a far greater difference in learning styles and abilities among the group of boys or girls than between the two groups. Neuroscience supports this – brain imaging studies show virtually no sex difference in brain structure(6).

Individual differences are more relevant than gender when supporting students’ learning and helping them to achieve their full potential. Rather than asking, ‘do we need to treat our girl students differently to how to treat our boy students?’ educators must ask, ‘how do I get the best results from this student?’

Explaining gendered behaviour

It’s likely we’ve all observed boys and girls choosing to play with different toys and groups of boys interacting with each other differently from how groups of girls interact. While it’s true that the behaviours and preferences of boys and girls reflect stereotypical patterns from a very early age, this is not because of innate sex differences. Rather, behavioural differences result from gender socialisation, which is the process of learning what it means to be male or female in your cultural setting.

Sex is different to gender. Whereas sex involves biological differences, gender is a social construction. Parents and educators are active shapers of gender through the activities that they encourage or discourage. On holiday in Queensland, I stood behind a father in a queue at a pharmacy. He overheard him explaining to the pharmacist that his two-year-old son had a fever, so he was looking to purchase Panadol syrup to give to his son. The pharmacist asked him if we wanted strawberry or orange flavour. The father replied, “Well, he’s a boy, so orange”.

Children desperately want to please their educators and carers. They respond according to the cues they get from the important adults in their lives. Children engage more in behaviours and make choices that are approved of by their educators and carers, and they engage less in behaviours and avoid choices that trigger disapproval. In this way, prevailing societal expectations and preferences about gender shape a child’s behaviour and may even cause changes in abilities and brain structure. If you direct your son towards Lego and your daughter toward reading, it is likely your son will likely develop stronger spatial skills and your daughter stronger verbal skills.

The damaging effects of gender socialisation

This process of gender socialisation can have significant long-term ramifications. Boys are more frequently taught to repress their emotions. Consequently, men suffer from higher rates of suicide. Women self-select into stereotype-congruent careers that have traditionally paid less than traditionally masculine careers or opt out of the workforce altogether with significant negative implications for their long-term financial security and wellbeing. Traditional gender stereotypes and associated inequality also underpin an alarming prevalence of sexual harassment in workplaces that further dampens female workforce participation. People identifying as LGBTIQ also suffer from higher rates of workplace sexual harassment linked to rigid stereotypes about masculinity and heteronormative beliefs.

The role of schools in disrupting outdated gender stereotypes

The process of gender socialisation starts very early and continues over one’s life. Once a child starts school, they will already have formed gender stereotypes. However, gender socialisation is a life-long process, and schools play a significant role in shaping perceptions and beliefs about gender. Through classroom dynamics such as teacher-student and student-peer interactions, the curriculum and text, and symbols and messages that are conveyed in the wider school environment, schools can promote traditional gender stereotypes or schools can be a force for change by actively challenging traditional stereotypes and constructions of gender. Coeducation settings, to the extent that they provide greater opportunities for boys and girls to work alongside each other as equals compared with single-sex schools, are better placed to challenge the damaging stereotypes that limit the long-term financial security of girls and the wellbeing and safety of both girls and boys over their lives. They also provide a more inclusive environment for gender non-binary students.




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