Changing from single sex to co-ed can be good if based on educational (not economic) reasons

By Judith Gill

Single sex versus co-ed schooling is back in the news with the announcement from The Armidale School, a traditional, private, all boy school, that it is turning co-ed. Of course there are many opinions about it, you probably have your own. So, as someone who has written extensively on the issue, here is mine.

I’m dismayed when, as in the case of The Armidale School, the announcement to adopt coeducation is put forward on economic grounds, in the media at least, rather than being driven by educational ones.

I think the case has to be made strongly for educational reasons, and understood by all concerned, before the development from single sex to co-ed should proceed.

There are excellent educational reasons for choosing coeducational schools for your children in 21st century Australia, such as their capacity to offer a wide range of subjects in senior school, the classrooms tend to display greater diversity of outlook and opinions, friendship groups are less stratified and more fluid and students move relatively easily into mixed contexts such as university, work and social life generally.

However fifty years ago in Australia the situation was very different. In coeducational schools up until the late 20th century girls had significantly less access to education compared to boys. Before 1975 girls were much less likely than boys to complete school and to progress to university where they were vastly outnumbered by male students. All too often girls were channelled into domestic science and clerical courses rather than mainstream academic ones because the latter were thought to be too difficult for them. Consequently we are indebted to the tradition of girls only schools for establishing that girls can and do achieve highly in curriculum areas once reserved for males.

But now that education is widely viewed as the right of all young Australians much of the earlier gender discrimination has diminished, if not entirely disappeared. Education in mixed settings has been seen to prosper to the benefit of all concerned, teachers, parents, administrators and most particularly students.

I’ve been involved with several schools in the decision to become coeducational and in each case it has been a time of productive professional development for the school community. Teachers, in particular, have been ready to respond to new challenges and to rethink the tried and true pedagogical styles in terms of broader applications.

However one school, a previous single sex school, after about 3 months of coeducation sent out a newsletter to their school community with the headlines “It’s just the same … and we are all doing very well!” I must admit to considerable disappointment at this, given I had anticipated they would be relishing the change in their student body and enjoying different sorts of learning processes. I guess they were trying to be reassuring lest there were parents who were frightened and opposed any element of difference.

I must say although I am generally in favour of coeducation, I am not anti single sex schools. There are some very good single sex schools and also some very ordinary ones, just as there are good and bad coeducational schools. My position is that gender context is not the most important feature of schooling in terms of successful student achievement and positive attitudes to education. It just happens to be the feature most readily remarked on, and thus becomes a stalking horse for all sorts of other issues that are more likely to make a difference to student learning.

Schools with excellent teachers, concerned and involved parent community, inspired leadership and a good spread of relevant resources are to be found in both single sex and coeducational institutions. These features are much more important than the issue of gender context.

I think speculating on whether single sex schools have a future or not in the 21st century is rather pointless. Personally I don’t like or dislike them. However I do object when school leaders make the claim that girls in particular can only learn effectively in single sex schools. There is so much research showing this is not true, that girls are achieving at the top levels in coeducation schools.

So the often reported claim from all girl schools that “research shows ..” is a falsification of properly assembled evidence and/or deliberate mystification. Education is too important for such spurious claims.


You can read more about my research and views in my book “Beyond the Great Divide: Single Sex Schools or Coeducation?” UNSW Press available through Amazon and other local outlets


JudithGillJudith Gill PhD is currently an  Adjunct A/Professor in the  School of Education at the  University of South Australia where she worked for 25 years in teacher education. She has a longstanding interest in gender, work and education, particularly in terms of  gender contexts of learning, which has involved investigating the experience of students in single sex school compared with coeducation, leading to the book Beyond the Great Divide: Single sex schooling or coeducation? (Sydney, UNSW Press 2004).  Another line of enquiry is citizenship education  as in the 2009 book Knowing Our Place: Children talking about identity, power and citizenship. (Routledge NY). More recently she has investigated engineering education, as seen in Gender Inclusive Engineering Education (NY Routledge 2009) and Challenging Knowledge, Sex and Power: Gender, work and engineering (NY Routledge 2014)

2 thoughts on “Changing from single sex to co-ed can be good if based on educational (not economic) reasons

  1. Carl Salt says:

    I agree with what you have said in regards to the co-education vs single-sex schools debate— there are more worthwhile subjects to spend our thinking time on. However, I do know the reality for some single-sex schools, who choose to move to co-education, is that economics is the main driver. It is a matter of increase enrolments or cease to exist. Most organisations would choose the later unless the change was untenable for the stakeholders. As an example, a committed Anglican School merging with a committed Catholic School may be unlikely.
    Is it a better driver than good educational outcomes for students?- obviously not. Would you hope that while economics may be the reason for the change the School Community is able to identify a host of other benefits- definitely.

  2. The announcement by The Armidale School (TAS) in NSW that it will enrol girls from 2016 has prompted a plethora of media reports and opinions on single-sex education in Australia. As is the case at TAS, the movement toward co-education is usually driven more by economic feasibility than educational outcomes.

    Judith Gill has argued the benefits of co-educational schools over single-sex schools, stating that while she is not “anti single-sex schools”, claims by girls’ schools that “girls can only learn effectively in single-sex schools” is a “falsification of properly assembled evidence and/or deliberate mystification”. In response, the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia — which represents girls’ schools from the government, independent and Catholic sectors in Australia, New Zealand and Asia — has stated that it is not its position that girls can “only” learn effectively in single-sex schools.

    Rather,mthe Alliance believes that girls’ schools provide unparalleled opportunities for girls. In a learning environment that is free from gender discrimination, girls achieve greater academic success, are more confident and assertive, and are more likely to study science, maths and technology (STEM) subjects, and participate in sports and physical education. Post-school they are more likely to pursue tertiary study and careers in STEM hold leadership positions and earn higher wages.

    In a girls’ school, girls are free to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects without the subtle pressures that boys may exert in co-educational schools to discourage girls from taking these subjects. Girls are also free to pursue non-STEM subjects, including drama, music, art, languages and humanities, without feeling that they are “for girls” or less worthy than traditionally “male subjects” such as mathematics and physics. It is not surprising, therefore, that regardless of which subjects girls choose, overall academic standards at girls’ schools remain strong across the board.

    Australian girls’ schools consistently perform highly in the annual NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy tests. The Australian newspaper’s analysis of the 2014 NAPLAN data shows that 46 out of 109 schools ranked in Australia’s “Top 100 Secondary Schools” are girls’ schools. This is a remarkable achievement given that approximately 7% of Australian secondary schools are girls’ schools. In fact, excluding the 35 fully or partly selective schools (of which only one is a girls’ school), the 45 non-selective girls’ schools comprise 60.8% of the 74 non-selective schools in the “Top 100”.

    These results are also borne out in Year 12 academic outcomes, with girls’ schools across Australia regularly featuring in lists of the “top” schools for Year 12 tertiary entrance scores. For instance, in Victoria, the Good Schools Guide’s release of the “Top VCE schools” for 2014 shows that 9 of the top 20 schools are girls’ schools (not including Haileybury Girls’ College, a single-sex parallel campus of Haileybury College).

    In New Zealand, girls from girls’ schools were awarded 39.4% of the country’s Top Subject Scholarship Awards in 2012 and 51.1% of Top Subject awards in 2013. In the United Kingdom in 2012, the 5% of girls attending schools belonging to the Girls’ Schools Association were awarded between 19.8% and 25.9% of A* grades awarded to girls in Chemistry, Physics and Further Maths and 31.7% of A* grades awarded to girls in French.

    While girls’ schools continue to perform strongly in academic testing, one area of concern is the relatively low numbers of girls taking STEM subjects. An Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute report found that only 6.6% of Australian girls studied an advanced mathematics subject in 2013, half the rate of boys. Even worse, in New South Wales, only 1.5% of girls were taking the “trio” of advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry.

    Girls’ schools, however, are bucking the trend. They are more likely to take advanced science and maths than girls at co-educational schools, which speaks to the different environment that exists in girls’ schools, where gender stereotypes are less prevalent and students are encouraged to take academically-challenging mathematics and physical science subjects to gain entry to tertiary courses and pursue male-dominated but more highly-paid careers in STEM fields.

    While the topic of academic achievements at different types of schools is currently a matter for much debate, with many arguing that high academic achievement is related to a student’s socio-economic status (SES), not the school they attend, there are many other factors that contribute to a student’s success at school. Indeed, academic outcomes are only one measure of a well-rounded education.

    Girls fill every single leadership position for every activity in every year level of girls’ schools, from the school captain to team captains for the most junior sports teams. Girls also play all instruments in the orchestra, stage band or jazz band, from the bassoon and tuba to the drums and electric bass guitar.

    In a girls’ school, girls lead and participate more freely in discussions, they feel empowered to behave more competitivelyand to take more healthy risks, such as trying new activities. Single-sex schools give girls and boys the opportunity to be taught in relevant ways to suit their unequal stages of development. In fact, a number of co-educational schools, both in Australia and overseas, are segregating classes at various levels, or introducing hybrid or parallel campuses, to deliver more effective teaching and learning programs to both sexes.

    Parents also choose girls’ schools for their safe, nurturing environment; for the quality of pastoral care that is designed specifically for girls; and for the excellent female role models who encourage their daughters to aim high in whichever path they choose to follow. While these factors are more difficult to quantify, the outstanding alumnae of girls’ schools speaks for itself.

    Finally, the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia takes issue with the viewpoint that girls in single-sex schools are denied the opportunity to mix with boys and are unable to cope with the co-educational environment of university and the workplace. Girls at girls’ schools are no different than girls at co-educational schools — they have fathers, brothers, uncles and male cousins; they participate in mixed gender activities such as debating, music, drama and sport at school and outside of school; and they socialise with boys in their free time. The factor that distinguishes girls’ schools, however, is that there are no boys in the classroom to distract, discourage or intimidate girls, and nor are teachers trying to teach to two groups who have differing needs and interests.

    Choosing a school is one of the most important decisions that parents make for their children. There may never be agreement on which type of schooling is “better” or “best”, but what we should be able to agree on is that each child is an individual and having choice in the education sector is a positive, not a negative. Parents, and indeed students, value the ability to choose the school that best fits their needs.

    Loren Bridge

    Executive Officer, Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia

    The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia is a not for profit organisation which represents government, independent and Catholic girls’ schools in Australia, New Zealand and Asia. We believe that girls’ schools provide girls with unparalleled opportunities preparing them to take centre stage in the world beyond school.

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