Last week, prestigious Sydney boys school Barker College announced its decision to become entirely co-educational by 2022. The school, which already accepts female students in years 11 and 12, has described the transition as “future minded”, with Principal Phillip Heath emphasising that the world will soon no longer be “defined by gender”.
In the wake of the decision, Australian supporters of mixed-gender education have rejoiced. Parents, teachers and students alike have spoken out in favour of the change, and in support of co-ed schools more generally. On Tuesday, Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald about her own experiences in a single-sex school in Sydney’s northwest, suggesting that splitting girls and boys up “hinders social progress” in a world where we’ve accepted that “anatomy has nothing to do with gender”.
Like Nguyen, I attended a single-sex high school. Unlike her, however, I didn’t experience an environment that bred single-mindedness and gender stereotypes. In fact, I disagree with almost everything Nguyen says in favour of abolishing single-sex schools
1. Students perform better at single-sex schools
At my all-girls high school, I discovered an environment where I thrived intellectually. I had always been a keen student, but in high school I took things to a new level – I felt completely engaged in my learning, and more importantly, I felt confident, never like a “try-hard”. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the extent of research indicating that young girls perform better academically in all-girls environments.
Traditional wisdom regarding single-sex education indicates this is because girls are “less likely to be distracted by boys”. Nguyen takes issue with this perception, arguing that it takes a hetero-normative stance: surely, she asks, there will be girls who are just as “distracted” by their female classmates?
WATCH: Some experts argue that single-sex schools aren’t the best thing for kids.
Of course, if we’re talking about romantic distraction, she’s right. It’s just as likely that a student of a single-sex school will develop a crush on the person sitting next to them as a student in a co-ed environment. What Nguyen doesn’t account for is the other kind of distraction – the kind that’s less about making googly eyes at a fellow student and more about waiting for the boys at the back of the class to stop throwing books at one another before class can begin. Studies have extensively documented a disparity between the rates of development of adolescent males and females. That disparity is never so obvious as in a classroom environment, where attention span and levels of maturity can differ dramatically between girls and boys.
2. Single-sex schools aren’t meant to mimic the real world
A common complaint regarding single-sex schools is that the separation of genders in a school context fails to prepare students for “the real world”. Students, Nguyen claims, are often in for a “rude awakening” when they transition to university, suddenly exposed to an entire gender they were only peripherally aware of (or so the story goes).
Aside from the problematic notion that students from single-sex schools never come across people of the other gender at any point in their lives until university, there’s another issue with Nguyen’s claim: the idea that single-sex schools fail to prepare students for reality is premised on the idea that schools should be preparing students for reality. But nothing else about high school is based on getting by in the “real world”: not the subject matter taught, or the way examinations are conducted, or the way that many parents and teachers mollycoddle students.
Listen to how raising boys is different to raising girls.
Nguyen quotes psychologist Diane Halpern as saying, “we don’t have sex-segregated workplaces, so why would we have sex-segregated schools?” But schools have never pretended to be a form of immersion therapy into adult life, and they certainly don’t mimic the workplace. Instead, schools are a safe place where developing brains can learn about things, both conceptually and practically, from a distance. They’re a recognition that our adolescents aren’t ready for the “real world” yet – that they still have learning and growing to do. They’re a context in which children and teenagers can work out who they are, and how to engage with the world in the way that will set them up best for the rest of their lives. If that means that single-sex education suits some brains better, the way it did mine, then so be it.
3. Single-sex schools don’t perpetuate gender stereotypes
In her piece, Nyugen worries about the way that single-sex schools inflict “tired notions of gender essentialism – girls are like this, boys are like that”. She indicates that students at single-sex schools are more likely to feel trapped inside gender stereotypes, but my experience was exactly the opposite. I have vivid memories of walking through the school gate and feeling, after the tense awkwardness of my boy-filled bus ride, like I could be myself, whatever that looked like. I didn’t feel like I had to act like a “girl”. How could I possibly believe that “girls” all acted the same, when I was surrounded by diverse, wonderful, smart, zany young women who all refused to conform to a single mould? At school, I felt like I could yell, or cry, or laugh, or try hard in class, or run around and make a fool of myself when the mood struck me. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I wasn’t trying to fit into a stereotype, or practice being someone else. I was just learning how to be me.
As for the non-hetero-normative and transgender teenagers that Nguyen references, I agree that there is room for improvement across the board - in every school. I think it’s important to note, however, that every parent makes schooling decisions for the child based on what’s best for them. It’s true that a gender-non-conforming child might not feel like a single-sex school is the right place for them. It’s also true that for thousands of Australian children every year, a single-sex school is the best decision. Disbanding the option of single-sex schools for students who’ll thrive in those environments doesn’t seem like the right response to issues of non-hetero-normativity – instead, the funding of programs like Safe Schools to encourage broad-mindedness and acceptance among all our students seems like a more effective approach.
Of course, single-sex schools aren’t right for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits all option for schooling, and parents should think carefully about the place where they think their child will fit in best. But for what it’s worth, I loved my all-girls school. I thrived there. I worked out who I was there. I hope others have the chance to do the same.