A recent report discussing the inclusion of single-sex classes in co-educational environments ignores the very real benefits of single-sex schools.
The notion that a single-sex class can replicate a single-sex campus fails to understand the impact of a learning environment tailored to the way girls learn, as well as a social environment free of competition and social pressure from boys.
It is not just the classroom that affects academic results, gender stereotyping and the lack of confidence in girls; it is also the mixed-gender campus environment. Unconscious stereotyping and biases often exist in co-educational schools, from teachers encouraging boys to do science, technology, engineering and maths subjects while directing girls to the humanities, to research showing girls are less confident and have lower self-esteem and concerns about their body image.
In a single-sex school, girls are free to be themselves inside and outside the classroom.
As a student attending an Alliance of Girls’ Schools leadership conference said: “Boys? It’s really no issue not having them at school; I mean, we see them everywhere else. We’re at school to focus on our studies, and being around girls makes it a lot easier to do that.”
There are ample opportunities for students at single-sex schools to interact, negotiate, discuss and compete with students of the opposite sex during school-organised co-ed activities. They also have lives outside school with healthy relationships with opposite-sex relatives, family friends and peers they meet through extra-curricular activities.
Research by Terry Fitzsimmons from the University of Queensland shows that while multiple studies demonstrate girls’ confidence is lower than that of boys throughout high school, this is not the case in single-sex schools, where girls are equally as confident as boys. This has led Fitzsimmons’s team to conclude that there is something about the mixed-gender environment that is adversely affecting girls’ and women’s self-confidence.
Research consistently demonstrates that the benefits of single-sex schooling, including the existence of a social and cultural environment free from gender stereotyping and sexism, have a positive impact on female students developing skills that are advantageous for leadership, self-confidence and success in life.
Indeed, a recent US study showed that teenage girls do worse in their education, careers and social lives when they have more high-achieving boys in their classes. Conversely, girls achieve better results in maths and science when they have high-achieving girls in their class, and they are likelier to finish a bachelor’s degree. Girls’ schools provide an environment where girls are not exposed to the threat of stereotypes, are not intimidated by high-achieving boys who are assumed to be more naturally talented at maths, or where teachers unintentionally give preference to boys.
Instead, girls are exposed at a class level, year-group level and whole-school level to high-achieving girls who inspire them to achieve well in STEM subjects and go on to do degrees and have high workforce participation.
Co-ed models often are favoured because of their financial advantages; as co-ed schools they can enrol both boys and girls, potentially doubling their intake. The reality is that it is more cost-effective to establish single-sex classes in a co-ed school than to establish a single-sex school. However, the research shows that this economic compromise short-changes girls, who benefit most from an all-female campus.
We still hear it suggested that students at single-sex schools may never learn to mix with the opposite sex, given their unrealistic school environment. But this is an anachronistic view, totally at odds with the 21st-century reality of single-sex schools and the experiences of their students.
As a recent study from the University of California showed, graduates of all-girls schools are better set up for future success. The report’s authors concluded: “It is no surprise that some of the world’s leading women were educated in all-girls environments.”