Single-sex schools

Society has changed, so is this remnant from colonial days still serving us well? Elsewhere in society today, you find sex segregation only in ladies’ gyms and gentlemen’s clubs.

Should you choose a single-sex school?

The single-sex schools themselves assert that children get better academic outcomes when educated exclusively with their own sex and also emphasise the social advantages for the kids of learning in such an environment.

Girls’ schools seem to attract the most controversy because feminists are arguing hard both ways. Many powerful women first realised their potential at all-girls’ secondary schools, including Dame Quentin Bryce and foreign minister Julie Bishop. In America, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice went to all girls’ colleges. What if any conclusions can we draw from that?; and are boys’ schools just bastions of male privilege?

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Hillary Clinton went to an all girls college. She has shared her positive views on all girl schools many times.

Hilary Clinton said she found her feet while at a girls’  college. Can the aspirations and confidence she gained be attributed to the single-gender nature of her undergraduate education? You then have to ask, did her daughter Chelsea have fewer opportunities at the co-ed Stanford?

The single-sex education alternative arose initially out of religious conservatism according to religious anti-sex dogma. The first girls’ schools did not set out to prepare girls for University and work but to be competent housewives, learning flower arranging and cooking, and as such were appropriately set up for their stated purpose. Society has changed so is this remnant from colonial days still serving us well? Elsewhere in society today, you find sex segregation only in ladies’ gyms and gentlemen’s clubs. There is not in Australia today any single-sex tertiary education institution or workplaces, even military infantry divisions and the fire departments have opened their ranks for women.

 

Education Outcomes

General Trends Across All School

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) data from the 2006 and 2007 cycles shows that girls generally do better in the early years of schooling with reading achievement at grade 4 significantly above boys in most countries and with average achievement for girls in maths ahead of boys in most countries still in grade 8. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2008 Indicators report shows that graduation rates from secondary school are higher for girls across all OECD countries.

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Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 numbers show that Girls Outperformed boys in reading on average by 38 score point (equals one year of study) while boys outperformed girls in maths on average by 11 score points (equals three months of study) across OECD countries.

Girls and boys do perform differently in an education setting.

The assertion is that single-sex education can close this gender gap and that the causes are down to social and learning styles that can be addressed in a single-sex environment.

The Single-Sex Learning Environment – academic outcomes

The dataset – participating countries

One of the main sources of large-scale data on education is from PISA. Their data cover all OECD countries plus a few.

The distribution of single-sex schools is very different throughout the PISA and OECD countries. Ireland has the highest proportion with almost a third of schools being single sex, Britain also has a good selection of single-sex schools while Australia and New Zealand has a more narrow selection of mostly higher fee-paying private schools. Many PISA countries did not have enough single-sex schools to be part of the single-sex education studies. It is worth mentioning too that in Australia, some schools offer single sex classes to encourage specific education outcomes in response to concerns about gender learning styles and learning environment.

The Findings

The PISA numbers can be summed up like this: Girls performed on average better in all-girls schools and boys performed better in all boys schools compared to co-ed, however, once the numbers were adjusted for firstly the student’s socio-economic background and secondly adjusted for the school’s socio-economic background, there was no advantage to single-sex education. Basically, students perform as expected from their own and the school’s socio-economic background.

Simply put, the kids in single-sex schools did well because these schools are very good schools not because of the segregated nature of their teaching.

PISA can of course only measure academic performance. Social development is also an important outcome for students and the social environment and the development of social skills is a very large part of the debate.

Social Environment

There is also the corresponding assertion that boys in mixed environments suffer from very laddish values, thus again being distracted by the opposite sex to the detriment of their education.

Some education writers (Riordan et al.) think there is a reason to believe that when you have a mixed gender environment, students carry with them stereotypical attitudes to both the opposite gender and the subject selection they make. Thus, maths is viewed as masculine and languages as feminine and so on and this creates gender patterns. Some suggest that girls are hesitant to “call out” answers in the mixed-sex classroom. Since this is just a pattern, the reasoning is that if you take the child out of the mixed environment, the child will be able to follow their aptitude and interest rather than gendered patterns.

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We are here talking about the social environment facilitating learning. This same social approach to evaluating the education environment refer to what they believe is for girls, a “rating and dating” environment where the girls are more concerned about boys and how they rate with the boys that with their education. There is also the corresponding assertion that boys in mixed environments suffer from very laddish values, thus again being distracted by the opposite sex to the detriment of their education.

Research shows that both boys and girls have a strong tendency to judge that girls talking in the classroom spoke more than boys, meaning teachers were not able to fairly divide time between the genders in the classroom and would allow boys more time to speak while thinking the girls had taken more time.

Science and psychology

Even studies dividing groups along fully arbitrary lines (T-shirt colour) shows students develop biases against the “other” group. By separating genders into different classrooms or schools, educators lead children to view males and females as different and thus reinforce sexism in the culture at large, she says.

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Dr. Leonard Sax has written several books about gender differences. His writings have been very controversial.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a family doctor with a Ph.D. in psychology, argue that there are innate gender differences in the autonomic nervous system.  Based on the nervous system differences, he argues that boys should be taught through loud confrontation “What’s your answer, Mr. Jackson? Give it to me!”; whereas girls should be approached with a gentler touch “Lisa, sweetie, it’s time to open your book.” Dr. Sax has written several popular and well-received books about raising boys and girls but his views on single-sex education have been very controversial.

Sax’s material has not been unchallenged, with a line-up of people calling it pseudoscience, including psychologist Diane Halpern (more below) and Dr. Lise Eliot. Eliot of the Department of Neuroscience, Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science is even more scathing in another article; she calls his writings misinterpretations of other people’s studies.

Research into gender differences in the field of neuroscience is failing to turn up any differences related to learning. What has been established for some time is that boys’ brains have larger volume and girls’ brains mature earlier. Only the latter finding has been found to have any practical impact. Girls’ earlier maturation is linked to impulse control and decision-making and as such is a social factor and the link to academic performance is incidental. The PISA report on 15-year-old boys and girls shows that girls spend more time on homework and in the school library and the OECD 2008 Indicators report shows girls graduating from secondary school at a higher rate than boys. Several other studies show similar trends. Is there a link to maturity or is this down to something else and can you give boys a better shot at working hard and graduating in a segregated environment?

Diane Halpern, psychology professor Emerita at Claremont McKenna College and past president of the American Psychological Association visited Australia in September 2016. She spoke on the impact of gender biases in single-sex education. From her 30 years of researching sex, gender and cognition she has failed to turn up any academic advantage to single-sex education. She does have a lot to say on the social impact of sex-segregated education.

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Psychology Professor Emerita Diane Halpern has been working with gender research for 30 years

In her Melbourne lecture, Dr. Halpern pointed out that a multitude of studies show that people become more stereotyped in their beliefs about other groups when they are segregated. Even studies dividing groups along fully arbitrary lines (T-shirt colour) shows students develop biases against the “other” group. By separating genders into different classrooms or schools, educators lead children to view males and females as different and thus reinforce sexism in the culture at large, she says.

The effect referred to is often called the “group contrast effect” and is well documented and is probably an evolutionary trait. Having established that effect, however, does not necessarily lead you to conclude that the effect will lead to an impact on attitudes in general. Dr. Sax points out that group-contrast-effects are stronger when the genders are together than when they are separated and also that it does not necessarily translate from one setting to another.

Racial segregation has long been viewed as racist and many people looking back recognise that the policy exacerbated racial biases and was fully indefensible on all accounts. Diane Halpern questions why more people don’t see the correlation between single-sex schooling and the attitudes and biases it perpetuates and creates.

Some Questions

Should the discussion about how we provide education options be one about gender and about teaching facts, like it has been over the last couple of centuries, or are other considerations more salient when it comes to giving our kids the best opportunities to succeed in the society they will meet when they graduate.

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Preparing kids for the future

The matter that cannot be answered by any neurological research or psychological studies is whether segregated education will be conducive to preparing young people for a society where nothing is segregated. They will have to study and work in mixed gender environments.

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Are boys really “wired differently”

If it is the case that the genders learn differently, whether that is down to innate or acquired characteristics and if social factors are relevant to learning, it does not follow that the sexes should be educated separately. If they have to be in a tertiary learning setting together and then work together, then should we not set out to give them the skills and the expectations that are relevant for the rest of their lives?

Society is changing rapidly and it is prudent to ask how we best prepare our kids for that. Should the discussion about how we provide education options be one about gender and about teaching facts, like it has been over the last couple of centuries, or are other considerations more salient when it comes to giving our kids the best opportunities to succeed in the society they will meet when they graduate.

Learning Styles

There is the suggestion that girls and boys learn differently. We should ask though, if that is the case, is that difference any more important than the individual learning styles kids have. Many educators over the last thirty years have had success taking Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences into consideration as well as Myers Briggs Indicators etc. There are lots of research on intelligence and learning styles that are a lot more refined than any findings or any suggestions that have come out of the gender research about learning.

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Students doing homework in the park.

Opponents of single-sex schools say kids should learn together sooner rather than later, while others say it is a misunderstanding to conclude that because society is mixed therefore education should be: primary, secondary and tertiary education happen at different stages of maturity and development. Thus, if you can empower more girls to choose maths in secondary school, you increase the number of girls that will go on to have the confidence to do maths at University. Part of this view is that the kids acquire general co-existence social skills from other avenues like family, sports, clubs etc.

Finding causative factors in decision making

Do students make subject choices based on external influences, from perceptions of what’s expected of them, to be with their friends, from trying to not be different? Probably all of these come into play. If the group-contrast-effect between boys and girls systematically results in a pattern of choices that are not correlated to capacity or achievement, how is that best addressed? Is gender the decisive or the incidental factor? Is teaching delivery or teacher bias a factor?

Our Kids

The single-sex education alternative is a colonial remnant. Many prestigious single-sex schools with a long history have changed to co-ed over the last few years. Is the single-sex option a viable alternative that should be available to parents into the future?

Parents will continue to choose the single-sex schools and there is no doubt that they are very good schools that parents can have confidence in and kids can be proud of attending – which is not the same as to say that they should continue to be single-sex schools.

Sources:

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) conducts large-scale studies, including the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): 2008 OECD Indicators

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA): 2012 data cycle

Program for International Student Assessment (PISA): Equally Prepared for Life: How 15-year-old boys and girls perform in school Link

Riordan, C. (1994), The case for single-sex schools, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, US Department of Education, Washington DC.

Leonard Sax MD Ph.D. “Six Degrees of Separation: What Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences.” Educational Horizons, vol. 84, no. 3, 2006, pp. 190–200. Link

Diane Halpern, Lise Eliot et al. The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling Science” 333 (6050): 1706–1707) Link

Lise Eliot Neuron Vol72, Issue6 p.895

Leonard Sax “Are Single-Sex Schools Actually DANGEROUS?”, Psychology Today 2011

Lise Copeland
Author: Lise Copeland

I like to write about current topics concerning young people, education and mental health. I developed this website to help other parents and it is used by several hundred people every week. I have two kids at University and one in high school. They have attended State, Catholic and Independent schools in three States and Territories as well as overseas, giving me lots of first hand experience of how different schools can contribute. Education: BA(Hons) with Philosophy, Latin and Ancient Greek languages and BA Law (LLB).

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