For an issue that looms so large for parents and societies, there are surprisingly few controlled studies that compare single sex and co-ed education schools.
But some data that does exist, says Garry Falloon, Professor of STEM Education in the Macquarie School of Education, suggests that overall there is no reason for schools not to go co-ed, at least when judged by levels of student achievement.
Popular perceptions that girls do better at single-sex schools and boys at co-ed schools are generally not supported by studies, including Pahlke, Hyde and Allison’s 2014 meta-analysis involving 1.6 million kids in 21 countries. Available research indicates that for boys’ and girls’ schools considering going co-ed for social and cultural reasons, there appears to be no educational reason not to do so.
“Across the markers researchers used, looking at attitudes towards maths, science and performance, there was negligible difference – they used the words ‘minute at best’,” Professor Falloon said.
All the markers that show differences between the genders narrowed to almost nothing by the time they got to year 11.
Professor Falloon also points to a more recent Queensland study that looked at the confidence levels of boys and girls attending single-sex high schools that found no difference between the two.
“What was really interesting, as a general rule of thumb, was that as kids got older and went through schooling systems, all the markers that show differences between the genders narrowed to almost nothing by the time they got to year 11,” he said.
“However, in primary school boys had marginally better self-efficacy than girls did – that is, the sense of belief in one’s ability to do something, which we know is a strong determinant for achievement. But when they got to the middle school in years 7 and 8, the girls had started to catch up.”
The findings of the Queensland study, published last year in the Australian Journal of Career Development, supported those of the 2014 meta-analysis of 184 studies involving more than 1.6 million students from kindergarten to year 12 from 21 nations, including Australia.
The meta-analysis researchers commented that: “A theoretical assumption underlying many single sex programs is the view that gender differences and psychological characteristics relevant to learning are substantial and are biological in nature – what we have called the large biological differences assumption.
“Boys therefore need to be taught differently. According to this view, boys and girls should have better outcomes in single-sex classrooms compared with co-educational classrooms. Data from this study does not support these assumptions. They show no substantial advantage for either boys or girls across an array of academic markers and outcomes,” Professor Falloon said.
“Single sex schools are becoming less common. If you look at the history, a lot of it was based on assumptions about biological differences between the genders, and that boys because of their physical and biological characteristics learn differently to girls.”
In the Queensland study, for instance, an analysis of outside space at schools found that boys’ schools had a lot more of it – not counting playing fields, but the immediate space just outside classrooms.
“A lot of those ideas around boys needing large areas to run around and burn off energy and so on, are almost built into the environment of these schools. But those kinds of differences – or these assumptions that the ways boys and girls live demand a certain type of schooling –aren’t supported by the data in terms of achievement or self-efficacy,” Professor Falloon said.
The study also reported that mixing genders tends to demystify and normalise relationships between the sexes.
“The Australian study reported that as the kids get older, they co-operate seamlessly together, and they relate together - differences diminish.”
The ‘girl power’ approach
The theory that girls are dominated by boys in co-ed classrooms – particularly in domains such as maths and science – and their performance therefore suffers, is again not supported by the 2014 meta-analysis, Professor Falloon said.
“Girls in single-sex schooling showed only trivial differences from those in co-ed schools for the outcomes of maths performance and attitude, and science performance. Moreover, girls’ educational aspirations were not higher when they were in single sex environments,” he said.
“One area that did have a small, negative effect on girls’ self-efficacy was gaming and social media, which was not surprising really, given what we know about teens and social media”.
In single-sex schools, the meta-analysis found there was a tendency for girls to engage more in sport and leadership – aligning with the perception that boys can often be critical of girls’ engagement in sport – but any differences had diminished by the upper years of high school, and girls were engaging as much as boys at co-ed schools.
Professor Falloon says when it comes to private single-sex schools, there are perceptions that children will have greater opportunities – “and that may be the case, but not necessarily because they achieve better, but because within those environments children may have connections and networks that can facilitate access to certain things that may not be available to others.”
Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice and what works best for individual children – and which social outcomes are valued.
“My personal opinion on this, if your son or daughter is thriving in a single sex environment, then don’t feel you have to change to co-ed … and vice versa,” Professor Falloon said.
“When it comes to individuals, both school types have their place.”
This article originally appeared as a media release from Macquarie University.