By Loren Bridge
In recent comments made by Macquarie School of Education Professor Garry Falloon, he asserts that “popular perceptions that girls do better at single-sex schools and boys at co-ed schools are generally not supported by studies”.
Perhaps Professor Falloon is not aware of the, literally, hundreds of studies clearly demonstrating that girls do indeed do far better academically, socially and emotionally at single-sex schools.
But firstly, let’s take a closer look at the research Falloon has cited. The 2014 meta-analysis conducted by Pahlke, Hyde and Allison, which reviewed 184 cherry picked studies, notably ignored studies demonstrating that girls and women behave less competitively in mixed gender environments — particularly when ‘stereotype threat’ (where females are stereotyped as ‘bad’ at something, such as mathematics or economics) plays a role. For instance, they ignored the multiple studies by Australian Professor Alison Booth who summarised her findings by saying “the evidence is gathering that women in single-gender classes benefit, and they benefit significantly”.
Pahlke et al. actually found small advantages for students in single-sex education in mathematics and science for girls and boys, and for girls in single-sex education in terms of general school achievement. In addition, they also found (to their surprise) that some studies suggest that girls in co-educational schools are more gender stereotyped than girls in single-sex schools — meaning co-ed girls experience the same type of gender bias rife in society. As a result, girls in co-ed schools tend to be less assertive and less confident to speak up and ask questions. Classes are dominated by boys’ voices and the teacher’s attention is likewise dominated by the boys in the class.
This prevalence of gender bias in co-ed schools may well explain why these girls are also less likely to choose traditional male-dominated subjects such as STEM than students of girls’ schools. Interestingly, Pahlke et al. could equally have concluded from their findings that “co-ed schooling provides no benefits compared with single-sex education” or that “single-sex education offers benefits to girls in mathematics and general school achievement” or that “co-educated girls are more gender stereotyped than single-sex educated girls”. Perhaps the choice in favour of co-ed schools can be explained by the association of one of the authors with an American advocacy group that opposes single-sex education and works to prevent the opening of public single-sex schools and classes in the United States.
And to the Queensland study Falloon cites: this is by University of Queensland academics Terrence Fitzsimmons, Miriam Yates and Victor Callan and is called Hands up for Gender Equality: A Major Study into Confidence and Career Intentions of Adolescent Boys and Girls. Falloon is right — this study absolutely found “no significant difference in overall self-efficacy” between boys and girls in single-sex schools. But what’s missing is the researchers’ point that confidence levels for girls in single-sex schools matches that of boys, while girls in the general population consistently demonstrate lower confidence levels than boys in research findings.
Why do girls in single-sex schools have higher levels of confidence and self-efficacy? The study found that the greatest contribution to self-efficacy were participation in team sport, undertaking leadership roles, and taking part in leadership development activities. Fitzsimmons et al. concluded that girls’ schools simply provide all three of these factors in greater abundance. There is higher participation in team sport in girls’ schools, and the researchers also cited research showing that girls at co-educational schools opt out of sport due to the discomfort they experience under the male gaze. Given the strong link between team sport participation and self-confidence, it explains why co-ed girls display lower general self-efficacy than girls from single-sex schools.
Girls’ schools also provide significant leadership opportunities for girls — 100 per cent of the leadership positions (not just 50 per cent) are held by girls and the power of mentoring and role modelling provided by past students and the predominantly female leadership teams in girls’ schools provide girls with leadership development opportunities beyond those available in co-ed schools. In other words the study found that a girls’ school provides the environment for confidence to thrive. And it is confidence, or a lack of confidence, that is frequently attributed to the underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles.
Let’s also look at some of the other research supporting the case for girls’ schools.
Academically of course it is well documented that single-sex schools outperform co-ed, with an analysis of 2017 NAPLAN results by ACER finding that, even when socio-economic status was taken into account, Year 7 girls from single-sex schools were 18 months ahead of co-ed students in reading and almost nine months ahead in mathematics.
An analysis of the 2015 and 2018 OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results show that girls from girls’ schools in Australia and New Zealand outperformed girls from co-educational schools on all academic measures of science, mathematics and literacy.
Several Australian studies also demonstrate that girls in single-sex schools are more confident in maths in junior secondary and up to 85% more likely to take advanced science and maths subjects in senior secondary than girls in co-ed schools.
Socially and emotionally, girls who attend single-sex schools report a more positive school environment in which they feel a stronger sense of belonging and safety. The incidence of bullying for girls in single-sex schools is markedly lower than for girls in co-educational schools across all six of PISA’s measures of bullying — including being made fun of, being the subject of nasty rumours, and being pushed or hit — with a difference of up to 11 percentage points.
And just for a minute, let us look at the menace of sexism and sexual harassment. An Australian study of five co-educational schools confirmed previous findings that sexual bullying behaviours are commonplace within mixed-sex schools.
This year, a report released by Helen Connolly, South Australia’s (SA) Commissioner for Children and Young People, showed that sexism and stereotyping are now considered a “normal part of school culture” in co-ed schools with girls experiencing alarming rates of sex-based bullying incidents at the hands of male classmates. The report also found that these incidents are “generally not reported due to a belief that nothing can or will be done about it” by the schools.
Connolly warned, in her report, that not only do “sexism and gender stereotyping lie at the heart of gender inequality”, but they also “undermine girls’ confidence and self-worth, and distort interactions and relationships between girls and boys in ways that are unhealthy — negatively impacting on the health, safety, confidence and wellbeing” of all students.
These are just a few examples of the research, and there are many more, demonstrating the very real benefits of a single-sex education.
We believe that in today’s gender unequal world, girls’ schools provide an environment where girls are free to be themselves and can participate in and succeed at any academic subject or extracurricular activity they choose. Girls’ schools purposefully educate girls about the gendered world and girls leave school with the confidence that they can take on anything and anyone.
We do agree with Professor Falloon on one thing — there are both excellent single-sex and co-educational schools in Australia. While navigating research, opinions and anecdotal experiences can be intimidating for parents looking for a school for their child, often arranging a visit and talking to the teachers and students can help to make an informed decision.
Loren Bridge is the Executive Officer of the Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia.