The hidden costs of coeducation

An all-girls class of fourth-graders at Foley Intermediate School, in New York City – New York TimesThe four schools of the Parents for Education Foundation in Sydney are, to my knowledge, the only single-sex schools to have commenced in Australia since 1980, public or private. Given the renewed interest over the past 15 years in single-sex education in both the United States and Europe, this is surprising.

Escalating support for single-sex schooling is evident particularly in the United States. A major feature, "Teaching boys and girls separately", appeared earlier this month in the New York Times. Author Elizabeth Weil outlined the dramatic increase in public schools offering single-sex classes, from some dozen schools in 2002, to more than 360 schools currently in cities right across the State. In the past three years alone, some 30 single-sex schools, not just schools with some single-sex classes, have opened. She attributes the new commitment to single-sex schooling primarily to interest in the work of Leonard Sax, and she also refers to a number of new schools that have drawn inspiration from the Young Women’s Leadership School in Harlem (TYWLS), regarded by some as the birthplace of the current single-sex public school movement in the US.

A surge of support for single-sex schooling is also evident in Europe. Last year the European Association of Single-Sex Education (EASSE) held a major international conference in Barcelona with an impressive array of international speakers. Matt Aldous, a young history teacher working in a Sydney school, attended. After hearing about the scientific and sociological evidence for the benefits of single-sex schooling, his impression was that "the lack of government support for single-sex schooling is driven not by the data, but by blind ideology or outdated assumptions."

There are at least five essential arguments for governments to sponsor the development of single-sex schools. First of all there is the argument of economic necessity: that the demonstrable educational under-achievement of students in near universal coeducational environments damages national economies. Second, the new educational approach could remedy social-economic and gender injustices. Third, boys and girls learn differently and require differing educational environments. Fourth, boys and girls have differing social needs. Finally, moral education is more effective in a single-sex environment.

First, the economic argument. There are apparent economies of scale for coeducational schools: the extra costs involved of either duplicating facilities to run separate boys and girls schools, or of halving market appeal should schools open doors for one gender alone. But how can we not afford single-sex schools? The costs to our country of educational under-achievement are astronomical. We know that tertiary enrolment rates for males have dropped some 15 percentage points in the past 30 years. We know that until 20 years ago there was minimal difference in boys and girls performance in end-of-schooling exams in Australia; now only 45 per cent of boys score above-average marks. Most important, the research shows that single-sex schooling can reverse these trends. the economic conclusion follows. For example the studies of Australian researcher Ken Rowe present a compelling case for the effect that single-sex schools have on improving academic achievement.

Single-sex schools are also better able to address socio-economic and gender injustice. There is evidence that the educationally rich have access to ever-better education, but that the educational ghettos are growing and that children at risk are falling further behind. In the entire Western world we seem to have no problem filling our classrooms with happy primary kids, but something too often is coming unstuck in secondary comprehensive coeducational schools. Weil quotes a Tennessee educational bureaucrat, "Co-ed’s not working. Time to try something else."

Here in the state of New South Wales, the State Government has established a system of selective schools for children with IQs over 130 and only permits the release of top performer scores at the end of schooling. This makes it appear that selective public schools hold their own against single-sex independent schools. But most children learn in non selective, coeducational environments. They are being short changed.

Furthermore male and female brains are essentially different. Elizabeth Weil writes, "A deluge of data has emerged in recent years detailing how boys and girls have different developmental trajectories and different brains". Leonard Sax has developed a comprehensive case for single-sex schooling in his book Why Gender Matters: What Parents And Teachers Need To Know About The Emerging Science Of Sex Differences. His recent book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving The Growing Epidemic Of Unmotivated Boys And Underachieving Young Men, supports his earlier findings.

A significant number of single-sex schools are being established on the related insight that boys and girls have different social needs. The TYWLS schools are founded on the principle that exclusive attention to girls in a single-sex setting allows their gifts to flourish. The data is particularly compelling for girls’ schools. John Williams is the father of five girls who have completed single-sex schooling in Sydney, with another still at school. He says, "My girls flourish in a girls-only classroom. They are allowed to be themselves and develop their own talents. And it has certainly not held them back in relationships. My oldest three are now have settled into marriages and are very happy. Between them they have nine children of their own."

Lastly, there are strong moral arguments for single-sex schooling. Perhaps there was a pre-industrial, pre-urban time in the village when mixed schooling was natural and socially appropriate. But we live in a different age. A large coeducational school in the modern city can be positively damaging for some children because parents lose all management of the incipient social life of their children. Parents are the primary educators and nobody else has the right to set the moral agenda in children’s upbringing, neither a peer group nor their teachers.

The New York Times feature on single-sex schooling is one of the most talked-about articles of the past month. This is a change we all can believe in, wherever we are. The new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, recently promised an "educational revolution" – and it turned out to be a billion dollars worth of computers for secondary students. Of course these funds are welcome, but why not try something truly revolutionary, like applying common sense to the frightening decline in the educational fortunes of boys? The evidence is overwhelming for single-sex schools. The only thing that stands in the way is cobwebbed ideology.

Andrew Mullins is headmaster of Redfield College, a school in Sydney for boys in Years 2 to 12. He is the author of Parenting for Character.


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