Photo: Dan Peled/AAP

Where single-sex schools are going wrong

How attending gender-segregated schools impacts students’ emotional wellbeing and world view.

By Samantha Selinger-Morris

First off, it must be said that Caroline* loves her children just as much as you or I do.

So it was after much consideration, and with great respect for her youngest son, that she landed on her plan one afternoon for how she could best save him from a future filled with disappointment.

“He has to be crushed,” she thought.

“Or he’s going to be the master of the universe. I can’t let this arrogance just blossom.”

What got Caroline to this Sopranos-esque version of parental guidance were the backwards views about women that her 11-year-old had started spouting, picked up at his all-boys school in Sydney.

“My son was saying to me in the car the other day, ‘Ah, Mum, I’m going to tell you something about ‘man’s logic and women’s logic’.’ It turns out to be this stereotype, that men are organised and logical, and women are flighty and silly.”

She attributes this to his complete segregation from girls during the school day.

“There’s no like meeting of the minds [between girls and boys] and sitting in the classroom and discussing issues, or topics, and getting a wide of point of view,” Caroline says.

“They’re only getting that male input; their leadership role models are male. It’s all on my shoulders to bring up these men to be good feminists and respectful of women and not to think that just because they’re men they rule the world.”

The trend towards co-ed

Caroline’s conundrum is finally entering the national spotlight thanks to the burgeoning trend of single-sex schools in Australia converting into co-educational schools, and the recent announcement by one all-boys school principal that co-education is necessary for teaching people mutual respect.

“I have a growing suspicion that the way Australian culture is expressing itself, and it’s not only boys’ schools promoting machismo, but the lack of awareness informed through another experience is diminishing some of our young people as they move through to university, and they are missing opportunities to learn respect,” Phillip Heath, principal of historic all-boys school Barker College, recently told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Barker College, which has admitted predominantly boys for 126 years, will go fully co-ed, by 2022 (it has been partially co-ed since 1975).

This follows the decision by The Armidale School last year and St Andrews Cathedral School in 2008, to also go co-ed.

In 1975, Barker College admitted its first 59 female students. It recently announced it would be going fully co-ed from 2022. Photo: Barker College/Facebook

Caroline’s experience, and Mr Heath’s comment, tap into an overlooked aspect of the perennially raging debate over single-sex schools: the social and psychological footprint they leave on our children.

For the last few years, most of the debate has focused on the link, or lack of link, between single-sex schools and better academic performance. It remains stubbornly inconclusive.

While some reports claim that students at all-girls schools fare better, academically and socially, than their peers at co-ed schools, others argue that there is no such evidence to support that claim, and furthermore, that single-sex education leads to gender stereotyping in both sexes.

Some also believe it can exacerbate class differences, as most single-sex schools are private.

Much harder to study, and to measure, is how attending single-sex schools impacts students’ emotions and worldview.

But while some experts, teachers, and students insist that single-sex schools are beneficial for social and emotional development, it is clear to many that the schools have serious drawbacks, and may set up some children for unhealthy relationships, and struggles in the workforce, for years to come.

‘It reinforced the idea that girls are different from boys’

Brendan Ding, a 43-year-old Canberra lawyer who attended a single-sex school, says boys can acquire warped views about women at all-boys schools.

“Some of them really struggled … with dealing with women,” Mr Ding says about his former fellow students.

“It took them years to be able to carry on [a conversation] with a woman. And there are some who never really lost misogynist views about women.

“They would still contemplate and opine that women are better temperamentally suited for some roles and men for others. That men are better suited to high pressure roles, to overcoming adversity in difficult situations, [than women].”

The belief that single-sex schools cause future social and professional disadvantage is a furphy, says Fran Reddan. Photo: Luka Radikovic/Pexels.com

Part of the problem, Mr Ding says, is that being separated from girls at school reinforced the idea that girls are different from boys, and should be treated as such, a suggestion that has been given academic legitimacy in the journal Science.

“The question I always asked [teachers] was, ‘Why are we a boys school?’ It had to be because boys and girls are different,” he said.

“I remember one of the [school] deputies saying, ‘Well, we’re an all-boys school because we teach boys to become men. We teach people to develop certain values’, and I thought to myself, ‘Well, what are these values that men can only teach other men, and are not applicable to women? Strength, self-discipline, courage… Do women not need any of these?’.”

The age of ‘born to rule is over’

Mr Ding readily admits that while his school simply wasn’t a “good fit” for him, his brother who was “bigger” and sportier than him was very happy, as were many of their peers.

And Mr Ding was not the only person interviewed by the ABC to have tales of single-sex school aggression — and assaults — that seem to be ripped from a movie script.

“When you horde boys together … it turns into Lord of the Flies quite quickly,” Mr Ding says, recalling one student at a school camp being “knocked out” after a pillow fight escalated once boys starting putting heavy items, like boots, in the pillows.

(And Caroline says that when her eldest son attended a school camp at his all-boys school, “a group of the older boys were sticking sticks in the bottoms of other boys, [while they were] clothed”. It’s not just the boys, either. “There were proper cat fights, with hair pulling and scratching,” says one Sydney woman about the all-girls school she attended in the 1980s.)

One woman says there were ‘cat fights, with hair pulling and scratching’ at the all-girls school she attended in the 1980s. Photo: ABC TV

But Dr David Mulford, headmaster at Newington College, an all-boys school in Sydney, says that all-boys schools have changed dramatically since the 1980s.

“I think the days of, ‘you go to a single-sex school and you have no contact with other sexes’ is long gone,” Dr Mulford says, adding that social media now enables students to more easily connect outside of school.

And his school, Dr Mulford says, is proactive in helping its students form and nurture healthy relationships and in promoting gender equality and understanding.

The Year 12 students this year launched a “Stand With Her” campaign to educate their peers about domestic violence against women.

During an assembly on the topic, former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick was one of the speakers.

“Women can do anything and be anything, and get used to it, boys [is what we teach the boys],” Dr Mulford says.

“It’s going to be about what sort of person you are, and the [age of] born to rule’s gone. They’re going into the world where half the leadership positions will be women, half their bosses will be women, should be women. We have to make sure they understand that.”

Are single-sex schools better for boys?

But according to a study published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender in 2010, single-sex schools may be better equipping boys, rather than girls, for professional success.

(This is attributed to the fact that many single-sex schools frequently teach the genders differently, with boys focusing more on “facts” and girls on narrative and emotional intelligence.)

It’s a dynamic that Natanya Mandel, a Sydney-based manager of not-for-profit organisations, has witnessed in the workforce.

“What I’ve noticed is that when [these] women are working with men, they tend to defer to them even more than those of us who have gone to school with them [men] in the first place,” Ms Mandel says.

“They really defer to and even look up to men in the workplace much more so than people who’d sort of duke it out a bit more, be a bit tougher with the guys. And I’m talking, like, smart girls, girls that went to selective high schools.”

But it’s just one of the reasons Ms Mandel is concerned about her decision to send her daughter to a public all-girls high school next year. (It is the “best” school, academically, in the area, she says.)

She also worries that children who go to sex-segregated schools might come out inadequately equipped to engage in respectful, happy relationships in the future.

“As a community worker, as a person who’s worked with … women escaping domestic violence, and with all sorts of disadvantages, it’s really concerning to me that we’re not teaching our young people to work together right from the start.”

This belief that single-sex schools completely isolate the genders from each other, and therefore cause future social and professional disadvantage, is a “furphy”, says Fran Reddan, president of Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia.

“Contemporary schools are not designed to shield young people away from the real world,” says Ms Reddan, who is also principal at Mentone Girls’ Grammar in Melbourne, noting that contemporary single-sex schools offer more opportunities for students of both sexes to mingle — through drama productions and debating teams, among other avenues — than they once might have.

“Somehow I find that, whether it’s biology or what, men and women kind of figure out how to get along.”

So then how should parents navigate this maze of trauma and triumph, anxiety and excellence?

The trick, according to Dr Judith Gill, an adjunct associate professor at The University of South Australia whose specialty is schooling and gender, is to focus on how great the teachers are at any particular school.

“The quality of the educational experience — centrally involving the teachers and the school leadership — is much more important in student outcomes than the ‘label’ [public or private, single-sex or co-ed] of the school.”

*Names have been changed to protect interview subject’s privacy.