In simple terms, co-education makes sense – 

the world involves genders working together and it is therefore logical young people spend their formative years learning together.

The debate regarding single sex schooling or co-educational schooling receives regular air time in the media and a recent 60 Minutes story noted that there is a belief that single sex schooling could be largely phased out by 2035 – and noted that currently over 90% of secondary school students in Australia attend a co-educational school.  Some reports have noted that of the last 500 schools to open in Australia, only 11 are single sex.  In that same period of time, a number of schools have transitioned from single sex to co-education, including schools such as Canberra Grammar, Mentone Grammar, Barker College, Guildford Grammar, Tudor House and The Armidale School.  In the last 50 years, 17 new boarding schools have been established and all of those are co-educational.

Times have changed!

Single sex schooling is an approach that was established when gender roles were defined differently. Nearly every single-sex school in Australia opened before 1945 and most of them were founded around the turn of the 20th century. They are from a time when men and women were expected to restrict themselves to fields of work – and play – which were delineated by gender.  During WW II, when many men were away at war, it became clear in a practical sense that women were more than capable of taking on roles in life that were previously only filled by men. Since then, society has evolved to a point where it is very clear that men and women can both enter any field of work and equality is the expectation, not an anomaly.  If men and women are to be treated as equals, it should start during their formative years.

Learning experiences are enhanced when the classroom is shared

In the 60 Minutes story, Phillip Heath, Principal of Barker College – a school in Sydney which is moving to become fully co-educational – notes that “Learning is a complex, human experience… To suggest that the best way for a girl to thrive is to remove a boy probably undersells both boys and girls.” 

The separation of genders during an adolescent’s formative years also suggests that to be spending time together is abnormal. However, it is during these years that young people should be hearing different views and seeking to understand a range of perspectives. As Heath said on 60 Minutes, “How can you promote diversity when you exclude half the population?”

From time to time, reports will be released that suggest girls will have greater academic success if they attend a school only for girls.  However, any deep dive into the study quickly reveals that the very schools quoted benefit from a higher socio-economic status, which has a much clearer correlation with academic achievement.

In 2016, Professor Diane Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association, revealed the results of a comprehensive 2014 study which indicated that “we need to reconsider the impact of gender biases in single sex education”. 

"Proponents of single-sex schools argue that separating boys and girls increases students' achievement and academic interest," Dr Hyde said in the 2014 study. "Our comprehensive analysis of the data shows that these advantages are trivial and, in many cases, non-existent."

In simple terms, Halpern also repeats the popular central argument that, "We don't have sex segregated workplaces so why would we have sex segregated schools?"

Do students learn differently?

Proponents for single sex education will often argue that boys and girls learn differently and that boys need ‘special programs’ with, for example, more hand-on activities.  This argument is based on the ‘Learning Styles’ movement which was based on the theory of Multiple Intelligences coined by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner.  However, Gardner himself has noted that an understanding of strengths provides valid context, it should never be the foundation of curriculum design.  The ‘learning styles’ theory has been largely debunked by academics such as the University of Melbourne’s Stephen Dinham, who notes that there is no evidence to suggest that teaching to different styles improves learning.

In an article for ABC’s The Conversation, Dinham writes that, “Psychologists and neuroscientists agree there is little efficacy for these models, which are based on dubious evidence.

“If learning styles exist at all, these are not ‘hard wired’ and are, at most, simply preferences. What we prefer is neither fixed for all time, nor always what is best for us.”

Co-education makes sense

If school is considered ‘preparation for the real world’, then it makes sense that this training ground involves everyone.  If school is solely a place to generate grades for a tertiary pathway, then co-education is still the approach which will lead to a variety of insights, inevitably advantageous to any student’s academic results.  And if school is a place where relationships are formed, then those relationships should be beyond gender boundaries – for that is what will be happening for life.

investigation into coeducation - guildford grammar school