Co-education and single-sex schooling

Co-education and single-sex schooling

I imagine that many in the Trinity community will have noticed the announcement earlier this week by Newington College that they intend to become co-educational in the years ahead. In response to the decision, some of the public commentary, and a number of queries that I was receiving, I wrote the following opinion piece that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Understanding that it is behind a paywall, I have reproduced the text of my article below for the benefit of the Trinity Grammar School community.

The announcement by Newington College that it will become co-educational in the years ahead has been seized on with glee by the opponents of single-sex schools for boys as further evidence that the end of such schools is nigh.

This assertion gets framed in different ways. Sometimes it is asserted that education in a single-sex boys’ school is a toxic influence in forming the attitudes and thinking of men. Sometimes it is asserted that business imperatives require single-sex schools to broaden their market. Sometimes it is simply stated as: Life is co-ed, so schools should be, too.

There is no doubt that misogyny and gender stereotypes continue to be a malign feature of Australian society. The gender pay gap, the disproportionate burden of home and family responsibilities carried by women, the prevalence of male-against-female violence and harassment, and many other well-documented issues continue to demonstrate that we have a long way to go in shaping a society characterised by respect.

However, it is not reasonable to blame single-sex education for these ills. Given that about 95 per cent of Australian schools are co-educational, it is evident that co-education is not the solution and that single-sex education is not the cause. If it was, these problems would no longer bedevil us.

Likewise, the suggestion that single-sex schools are being economically imprudent by ruling out half their potential market is not supported by the facts. There are certainly a number of single-sex independent schools that have been driven to co-education by market forces. However, the recent high-profile decisions to go co-educational have not been compelled by declining enrolments, and the experience of other high-profile single-sex schools suggests that demand is not falling.

In fact, scarcity of single-sex schooling options may drive up demand, on exactly the same basis that is being seen in NSW government schools, with reference to scarce co-educational options in some areas.

The simplest assertion made by the opponents of boys’ schools is that schools should not be single-sex because life is not single-sex. (Strangely, this assertion is rarely made against girls’ schools. However, the logic is invalid. It contains an unspoken assumption that there can be no valid reasons to separate boys and girls for learning during their school years. I can think of a few.

First, humans are a sexually dimorphic species. There are differences, on average, between boys and girls. These differences are not seen only “below the neck”. The development of the brain, the impact of hormones, and the rate of maturation are different, on average, between boys and girls.

Obviously, all students are unique and there are differences within single-sex cohorts as well. However, considering the reality of the biological substrata of the human condition could lead us to see benefits for student learning in a single-sex environment.

Second, domains of learning are less affected by gender stereotypes in single-sex environments. Girls are less likely to be alienated from traditionally “male” subjects such as physics and maths, and boys are less likely to perceive the creative arts as feminine. Single-sex schools reduce this aspect of gender stereotyping.

Third, there are clear benefits to reducing distraction in an educational environment, as demonstrated by the increasing concern about the ubiquity of phones in schools. Single-sex schools reduce one set of potential distractions in the educational environment.

To be clear, I do not think any of these reasons are a compelling argument that all schools should be single-sex, or that a single-sex education is a better option. However, they do suggest that there can be merits to single-sex schooling, just as there can be for co-education. It follows that there are shadow sides to each option, and responsible educators will seek the best way forward in their particular context.

There are lots of different ways to be a good school. Good schools do the crucial work of shaping young people to be responsible and respectful citizens, equipped with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to flourish and to contribute in the decades to come. This is true for boys’ schools, girls’ schools and coeducational schools. Everything works somewhere for someone, and nothing works everywhere for everyone.

The challenge perpetually before those who lead, teach and serve in schools is to ask: “How can we – in this particular context – do this better?”

Newington College have resolved its way forward, and I wish it well. The path it has chosen is not the only way to be a good school.


Tim Bowden | Headmaster

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