"I thought co-ed was best all my life. Then I started working in an all-girls school."

I grew up attending both co-ed government primary and secondary schools. My mum was a proud co-ed public school teacher and an advocate of public education.

She held the general belief that if a student is willing and wanting to learn, that it didn’t matter what school they attended, they would determine their own future by working hard and trying their best.

There is no question that this perspective rubbed off on me. Myself, as well as many of my classmates who I studied alongside did exactly that. We worked hard, we took advantage of our wonderful teachers and their wealth of knowledge, the opportunities we were offered and we travelled along varying pathways to achieve the career dreams we wanted.

Among my graduating year are doctors, engineers, writers, artists, business owners, trades people, police officers, politicians, teachers and nurses.

While I undertook my education in a co-educational environment, one of my best friends, who attended the same co-ed primary school, enrolled in a very different educational institution for secondary school, an all girls Catholic college.

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At the time I really didn’t get it. Why attend a school that only has one gender of students? This isn’t setting you up for the real world, surely it can’t be beneficial. Surely it makes no difference?

Ironically, this all girls’ school is now my work place. Although I still hold my original belief of being the determiner of your own destiny, working here has changed my mind about girls’ schools and co-educational school environments and what they can offer.

My perspective began to change once I had settled into my workplace and observed the environment around me. I realised that this particular setting was incredibly unique and although not for every girl, it certainly offered some incredible advantages for the ones it did suit.

There is a definite sense of self confidence and self-assurance clearly visible within the majority of students where I work. From the way they carry themselves, their manner and the effort they exude in and outside the classroom.

The worry over image or how they are perceived by others seems to be less concerning here than I remember from my own co-educational experience as a student and as a teacher in a co-ed secondary school. This observation is supported by comprehensive research collated by The Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australia.

shona hendley
Shona and her two children. Image: Supplied.

As well as this idea of self-confidence, The Alliance lists five key benefits of single sex girls schools, including:

Girls feeling empowered to defy gender stereotypes.

“Austrian researchers have found that 'in more female environments, girls are less restrained by gender stereotypes and are more likely to consider traditional male school types and careers'." Schneeweis & Zweimüller, 2012

Girls’ schools build self-esteem and enhance wellbeing.

“Girls in co-ed schools feel more pressure to be thin than girls in single-sex schools because the presence of boys in schools 'may inflate appearance concerns and lower self-esteem' among girls. On the other hand, single-sex schools encourage 'improved self-esteem' and 'psychological and social well-being in adolescent girls'." Cribb & Haase, 2016

Girls’ schools tailor teaching to girls and provide an aspirational environment.

“Girls at girls’ schools have 'higher aspirations', 'greater motivation' and are 'challenged to achieve more than their female peers' at co-educational independent and public schools." Holmgren, 2014

Single-sex schools create a culture of strong academic achievement, particularly for girls.

“Girls in single-sex schools perform better academically than their counterparts in co-educational schools, after holding constant measures of selection, background, peers and school factors." Cabezas, 2010

Girls’ schools buck the trend in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths).

“A 2017 report by Monash University found that girls at single-sex schools were more likely than girls in co-ed schools to study chemistry, physics, intermediate-level mathematics and advanced-level mathematics." Forgasz & Leder, 2017

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As with everything, this is all variable. Not all girls are suited to environments where there are no male students, not all girls will excel in these settings. Some will find detrimental what others find beneficial and some will succeed and do their best no matter where they attend, co -ed or single sex.

But after seeing first hand evidence of much of these findings it has definitely made me as an educator, as a mother of girls and as an individual really open my mind to what all girls schools can offer. Sometimes they are a better fit for female learning than a co-educational environment.

Where do you stand? Do you think single sex school are better or worse than co-ed schools? Tell us in the comments section below. 

Shona Hendley is a freelance writer from Victoria. An animal lover and advocate, ex secondary school teacher with a morbid fascination for true crime and horror movies, she is busy writing and raising her children: two goats, two cats and two humans. You can follow her on Instagram here.

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