This year the head of a British independent school was first out of the gates just days into the new year, saying pupils at girls-only schools were “at a huge disadvantage” and risked growing up unable to “meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues”. The Australian Magazine was next, with a long article focusing on boys’ schools that have decided to admit girls. The piece was headlined: “More single-sex schools are going co-ed but is it better for everyone?”
It’s a good question and I can answer it in one word: no.
Why? Co-educational schooling is seen by many to be beneficial for boys, but it is not better for girls. Girls do better at girls’ schools, not just academically but in terms of their confidence and approach to challenges, risks and leadership.
Internationally, the evidence has been mounting for decades and continues to roll in. Just a few weeks ago, some detailed number-crunching of England’s 2015 General Certificate of secondary Education scores (by education analytics website SchoolDash) found that girls-only secondary schools outperformed co-ed and boys’ schools, even with the results adjusted for selective entry and socioeconomic status.
Australia’s National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy testing tells a similar story: The Australian’s analysis of 2014 NAPLAN data showed 46 of 109 schools ranked in Australia’s top 100 secondary schools were girls’ schools. It is an extraordinary outcome given that only about 7 per cent of Australian secondary schools are girls-only.
If you exclude fully or partly selective schools, girls’ schools comprise slightly more than 60 per cent of the 74 non-selective schools in the top 100. The same pattern is evident in school-leavers’ results, with girls’ schools consistently over-represented in annual tables listing those with the highest Year 12 university entry scores.
There are many more figures like this but I’ll leave them for now, because at this point it is usual for advocates of coeducation for girls to duck and weave a little, dodging further discussion of academic outcomes and darting in with timeworn ripostes citing “unrealistic environments” and an imagined social disadvantage suffered by women educated in single-sex classrooms.
These typically include but are not limited to: “see guys as dates, not mates”; “don’t know how to communicate with boys”; “struggle to adjust to working with men when they get into the real world”.
Such arguments, if you can call them that, overlook the fact that most girls, whether they go to single-sex or co-ed schools, have healthy relationships with male relatives, family friends, and boys they meet through extra-curricular activities, as well as other connections beyond the school gates. They fail to recognise that social media has changed the way young people interact. They skate past the utter absence of evidence that graduates of single-sex schools have difficulty working with men.
They also ignore that many women who attended girls’ schools excel in traditionally male-dominated fields. This deserves further scrutiny, not least because something that should concern Australia as a nation is the relatively low numbers of girls studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Girls’ schools, though, are bucking the trend. The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia notes OECD data from 2009 showing that 30 per cent of Australian girls in Year 12 at single-sex schools studied physical sciences compared with 21 per cent of girls at coeducational schools.
The alliance suggests that is because of the different environment in girls’ schools, where gender stereotypes are less prevalent and students are encouraged to take challenging subjects that will help them pursue male-dominated but more highly paid careers in STEM fields.
It is no coincidence that girls studying STEM subjects at single-sex schools have been found to outperform their counterparts at coeducational schools; girls and boys have different learning styles, and girls-only classrooms allow teachers to tailor their approach accordingly.
None of this is to say that girls cannot thrive in a co-ed environment — many do — or deny that some girls are happiest at school in the company of both sexes. Yet one vital thing a girls’ school offers, that co-ed schools cannot, is the presence of a girl in every student leadership role. From school captains to basketball captains and brass band leaders, every one of these is a girl. That inevitably colours a girl’s perception of her place in the world; you can’t be what you can’t see.
Study after study tells us that young women educated in a single-sex environment are more confident, competitive and willing to take risks. They are more likely to defy gender stereotypes in their subject and career choices.
Of single-sex schools that have chosen to move to coeducation in recent years, the overwhelming majority have been boys’ schools that have opened their gates to girls. The traffic in the opposite direction — girls’ schools choosing to bring in boys — is a fraction of that. When we ask why that might be, the answers are not hard to find.
Marise McConaghy is the principal of Strathcona Girls Grammar in Melbourne.