Comparing the benefits of single-sex education and coeducation.
is Headmaster of Redfield College, an
independent Years 2-12 Boys’ school in the northwest of Sydney. His
career has included over 25 years' teaching the humanities in
Australian secondary schools, leading to his interest in presenting the
wisdom of classic thinkers and philosophers. He has developed a strong
policy of involving parents in the process of reflecting desirable
values to young people. He is the author of Parenting for Character
(Finch Publishing, 2005).
The comparative benefits of single-sex and coeducational schooling have
been much debated over the past 50 years. The proponents of single-sex
education argue that boys and girls have differing needs and that their
styles of learning are different. They point to data demonstrating the
comparative under-performance of both boys and girls in co-ed
classrooms. Proponents of coeducation argue that mixed education is
more in keeping with the mores of modern Western society, and that
children from co-ed schools are better adjusted. Both contend that
their own approach is truly holistic.
The debate has a social component as well. Coeducation is sometimes
regarded as a solution to the failure of the modern family to provide
sufficiently for the effective socialization and moral development of
children. The financial savings of using shared facilities have led
governments to amalgamate formerly single-sex schools and open new
co-ed schools, both public and private. In some countries governments
have told independent schools to embrace coeducation or forfeit public
A new element in the debate is widespread agreement that somehow
education is failing boys. Boys are generally outperformed by girls;
statistics of self harm and depression amongst boys are alarming; there
seems to be a growing alienation of boys from their parents and fathers
in particular. Psychologists write of the “father hunger” of boys who
grow up without sufficient input from their natural father.
As Western society strives for gender equality, everyone has become
more alert to the unfairness of discrimination on the basis of sex.
This argument is used by both sides. Proponents of single-sex education
argue that only through single-sex education are the specific needs of
boys and girls met. Proponents of coeducation argue that coeducation
ensures equity of access to educational facilities and courses.
Single-sex education supporters reply that equality of the sexes does
not necessitate identical provision for males and females, and that the
best way of attending to the needs of boys and girls is to offer them
facilities and courses that satisfy their unique requirements.
The advantages of single-sex education
Boys and girls are wired to learn in different ways
It seems beyond dispute that boys and girls learn at different paces
and in different ways. This is not a matter of gender bias, but of
experience verified time and again by psychological research. The view
from the 1970s that gender traits are mere cultural constructs has been
discredited. Cross-cultural studies over the past 30 years reveal that
gender differences across the wide variety of cultures are remarkably
Here are some relevant differences. According to a 2001 study2,
women use the right and left hemispheres of the brain to process
language; men use only the left hemisphere. In general men are more
likely to use one area of the brain for a given activity; women are
more likely to use more of the brain. Studies show that women respond
to directions that include data about what they will see and hear; men
prefer abstract directions3 . Girls’ brains develop through
adolescence so that girls are better able to discuss their feelings;
boys’ brains do not. Research is revealing major physiological
differences in the brains of even pre-adolescent boys and girls 4 . For
example, seven-year-old girls hear better than boys 5.
These physical differences lead to differences in the way boys and
girls learn. Teachers need to encourage girls, while boys need a
reality check. Direct challenging works well with boys and they tend to
respond to clear boundaries. Emotional activity is processed in a
completely different part of the brain in older girls compared with
older boys. It has been suggested that girls respond more innately to
literature and that they more easily make links between ideas and
emotions. In stories, girls tend to respond to nuances of character,
boys to action 6. Role-playing exercises allowing a student to explore
character work particularly well for girls. Inductive exercises
allowing girls to act hypothetically also work well. There is evidence
that boys respond more to structured lessons, finite tasks, and perhaps
to the more abstract. Girls tend to respond more readily to group work
and team work. One fascinating study suggests that under certain
circumstances stress has a beneficial effect on male learning, but that
it can impair the learning of a female, and that this characteristic is
wired in the male brain from before birth 7.
Most children learn better in a single-sex environment
On average, children in single-sex education outperform children of
comparative ability in co-ed contexts. In a 20-year Australian study of
270,000 students, Ken Rowe found that both boys and girls performed
between 15 and 22 percentile points higher on standardised tests when
they attended single-sex schools.8 The National Foundation for
Educational Research in England9 found that, even after
controlling for student ability and other background factors, boys and
girls performed significantly better academically in single-sex schools
than in co-ed schools. Students in Jamaica attending single-sex schools
outperformed students in co-ed schools in almost every subject
tested.10 A 1997 study by Jean and Geoffrey Underwood showed that
girl-girl pairings performed best on tasks, and that girl-boy pairings
tended to depress the achievement of the girls involved.11
Boys and girls experience the benefits of schooling in different ways.
British studies suggest that females more than males benefit
academically from single-sex education: they participate more in class,
develop higher self esteem, score higher in aptitude tests, are more
likely to choose sciences and other male domains at tertiary level, and
are more successful in careers. Research suggests that boys dominate
the classroom in a co-ed environment. Boys can behave more loudly. Some
research has shown that girls receive fewer encouraging comments than
boys in co-ed environments. Studies by Cornelius Riordan suggest that
children from underprivileged backgrounds are the greatest
beneficiaries of single-sex schooling.12 The message of all this
research is simple: there are no differences in what girls and boys can
learn, but here are big differences in the best way to teach them.
Single-sex education meets the needs of boys better
Boys and girls have different needs and education which respects
personal differences must take this into account. On a practical level,
the intuitively directed and affectively oriented styles of learning
which suit most girls are not always compatible with the more
structured and practical approaches which appeal to boys. Single-sex
schooling allows teachers to tailor their teaching style to the boys
and facilitates a more rounded educational experience. In a co-ed
school, boys can opt out of curriculum areas where they would be
Furthermore, there is evidence that mixed classrooms can discriminate
against either boys and girls depending on the subject, the gender of
the teacher, the teacher’s methodologies, and the prevailing culture in
the school. Some schools have now started running single-sex classrooms
in English and other humanities subjects to improve the performance of
boys. The pilot study that demonstrated improved performance of boys in
this context has been known as the Cotswold Experiment.13
Single-sex education meets the needs of girls better
Single-sex education has clear benefits for girls. In the first place,
it often gives them expanded educational opportunities by allowing them
to pursue non-traditional disciplines for girls such as mathematics or
science. Single-sex schooling also offers more opportunities to girls
to exercise leadership. When girls and boys are in the same classroom,
the boys tend to dominate and overshadow equally talented girls.
On an emotional level, single-sex education puts less pressure on
girls, especially in adolescence. At that age, girls are more prone
than boys to suffer from low self esteem. It is difficult to manage
this issue in a co-ed climate when boys dominate in the classroom and
when they receive more recognition, allowance for misbehaviour and
Single-sex education makes greater provision for gender role modeling
The shortage of male teachers in the primary classroom is a concern in
many countries. In the first six years of school, many boys in co-ed
schools seldom encounter a male teacher. Because children imitate those
they admire, it is common sense to ensure that boys and girls find in
their teachers truly admirable role models. The example of
professionalism, values and consistently positive behaviour is most
important. But there are other aspects of example that are
gender-specific. A boy learns what it means to be a man from his
father, but this is reinforced if there are other admirable men in his
life. This is also true for girls and their female teachers.
Single-sex schooling allows boys and girls to mature at their own pace
Girls mature earlier than boys: they are better behaved, more diligent
and more sensible and they find it easier to relate to the adult world.
For all these reasons, it is often argued that girls exert a civilising
influence on boys. Whilst this may be true in some situation, the
converse is also true: boys can uncivilise girls. When adolescent girls
and boys study together, there is much evidence that a proportion will
end up distracted from their work.
Single-sex schooling is often criticised for reinforcing negative
images of masculinity. Unfortunately this can even happen in co-ed
schools. The problem is not solved by bringing girls and boys together,
but by vigilantly managing the culture in a school and sub-groups in
Single-sex schooling does not handicap children socially
There is no evidence that children who have attended co-ed schools
enter adult relationships that are more stable or fulfilling with the
opposite sex. Assertions that children from co-ed backgrounds are
better prepared for adult life seem to be flawed. There is a higher
rate of unplanned pregnancies (and by implication, of terminated
pregnancies) for girls in co-ed schools. One study has shown that
students from single-sex schooling are not noticeably thwarted in the
development of relationships with the opposite sex either at school or
later at university.14
Coeducation can allow socialising to complicate intellectual
development. Of course a positive school culture and the superior
training of teachers can work against this. But it is difficult to
protect impressionable young people from the images of precocious
intimacy that saturate the media. Since emotional attraction and
physical attraction works first of all at the level of physical
proximity, there seems a strong argument to separate a teenager’s
academic world from his or her social world. In a coeducational
secondary classroom the lines between social life and school can become
blurred. Single-sex education allows children to think about things
“other than their hormones”.
Single-sex schooling makes it easier to be a good parent
Single-sex schools also provide parents with an opportunity to manage
more effectively the social development of their children, particularly
in the early years. It makes it easier for them to impart education
about sexual matters in a way consistent with their values. Of course
when parents choose to send their children to single-sex schools they
will need to have much more initiative in providing for the social
development of their children. They should set up many opportunities
for boys to mix with girls in a family setting during childhood, well
before they turn 14 or 15. It is very late to be starting to talk with
a child about these issues once he or she has reached mid secondary
An undeniable problem for all families is the gulf between home life
and a teenager’s social world. Children must feel they can bring their
friends home. Coeducational schooling does little to help because it
creates a social environment which is totally beyond the parents’
knowledge and largely outside their control. Unhappily when youth
culture becomes divorced from family life, a certain percentage of
children are sure to end up badly damaged.
Even if single-sex schooling is better for children, it demands more of
their parents because they have to take responsibility for helping
their children acquire mature social skills. It is easier for parents
who send their children to co-ed schools to shirk this responsibility,
even though this is not a task which can be delegated to anyone else.
Indeed, the notion that parents can wash their hands of the problems of
teenage social life may account for some of the popularity of co-ed
education. But although relinquishing their leadership role might make
parents’ lives easier, the children often suffer from their neglect.
• “You cannot tell from looking at a slice of someone’s brain if
that person was Black or Asian, a Jew or a Christian, or a Hindu or a
Muslim. But you can tell whether that person was male or female.”
~ National Association for Single Sex Public Education:
•“Girls’ schools provide an environment that not only is good in and of
itself, but that in its redefinition of competitiveness and
collaboration, of autonomy and connectedness, presents a model that
other schools do well to emulate.” ~ Dr David Riesman, Harvard
•“When girls go to single-sex schools, they stop being the audience and
become the players.” ~ Professors Myra and David Sadker, American
National Association for Single Sex Public Education
A site set up by Dr Leonard Sax. An excellent summary of the research.
National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
Useful quotes, references to research, lists of benefits of girls-only education.
Do Girls and Boys Do Better in Separate Classrooms?
4 Troubled Teens website
The New Gender Gap: From kindergarten to grad school, boys are becoming the second sex.
BusinessWeek online. May 26, 2003.
Boys just can’t be boys!
Sid Sidebottom. Submission to Australian Parliamentary inquiry into education of boys. 2002.
(1) Paul Costa, Antonio Terracciano, & Robert McCrae, “Gender
differences in personality traits across cultures: robust and
surprising findings,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
volume 81, number 2, pp. 322-331, 2001.
(2) Michael Phillips, Mark Lowe, Joseph T. Lurito, Mario Dzemidzic,
and Vincent Matthews. Temporal lobe activation demonstrates sex-based
differences during passive listening. Radiology, 220:202-207, 2001.
(3) N. Sandstrom, J. Kaufman, S. A. Huettel. Males and females use
different distal cues in a virtual environment navigation task. Brain
Research: Cognitive Brain Research, 1998, 6:351-360.
(4) María Elena Cordero, Carlos Valenzuela, Rafael Torres, Angel
Rodriguez, “Sexual dimorphism in number and proportion of neurons in
the human median raphe nucleus,” Developmental Brain Research,
(5) John F. Corso, “Age and sex differences in thresholds”, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 31:489-507, 1959.
(6) William Killgore, Mika Oki, and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd.
Sex-specific developmental changes in amygdala responses to affective
faces. NeuroReport, 2001, 12:427-433.
(7) Tracey J. Shores & George Miesegaes. Testosterone in utero
and at birth dictates how stressful experience will affect learning in
adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
99:13955-13960, October 15, 2002.)
(8) “Boys and girls perform better at school in single-sex environments”
. April 17, 2000.
(9) Spielhofer T, O’Donnell L, Benton T, Schagen S, Schagen I. “The
Impact of School Size and Single-Sex Education on Performance”.
National Foundation for Educational Research. 2002.
(10) Marlene Hamilton. Performance levels in science and other
subjects for Jamaican adolescents attending single-sex and
coeducational high schools, International Science Education,
(11) Underwood, G., & Underwood, J. (1997). Children’s
interactions and learning outcomes with interactive books. Paper
presented at the CAL (Computer Assisted Learning) Conference, April 2
1997, at the University of Exeter.
(12) Cornelius Riordan. Girls and Boys in School: together or separate? New York: Teachers College Press, 1990.
(13) Steve Biddulph. “The Cotswold Experiment”
. Certified Male. 1995.
(14) Neville Bruce and Katherine Sanders, “Incidence and duration
of romantic attraction in students progressing from secondary to
tertiary education,” Journal of Biosocial Sciences, volume 33, pages