In many countries including Australia, gender-segregated instruction is common. Differing structures of single-sex education are offered in both independent and state schools, because it is believed to improve academic results.
However, the recent US comparative study, the largest ever taken, of single-sex and coeducational schooling indicates that separating the genders does not improve student outcomes. So why are we still doing it?
Proponents of single-sex education systems advocate myriad advantages, including academic, socio-emotional and political benefits.
It is argued that girls thrive in traditionally male-dominated subjects of maths and science when separated from their “disruptive” male counterparts. Although the issue of improved academic performance is more contentious for boys, they are also said to benefit from curricula tailored to a homogeneous classroom.
However, the new study finds differences in academic achievement between students in single-sex and co-educational systems is negligible.
Gender and identity
More profound issues than academic achievement and student outcomes should be of concern in the discussion of single-sex education in Australia. These include class, oppression and gender stereotypes.
Opponents of single-sex schools have argued separation can reduce the necessary social skills that develop in co-educational systems, leading to gender oppression and the creation of negative stereotypes. The implications therefore move beyond academic achievement to the impacts on the way boys and girls navigate their surroundings and establish social and sexual identities, as Janna Jackson argues:
… Because single-sex schooling ignores the complexity of sex, gender and sexuality, it sets up a ‘separate but equal system’ that is anything but.
Performance and Equity
Results from international achievement tests (the latest PISA rankings provide a basis for reflection) suggest countries with the most divergent educational programs find it increasingly difficult to achieve equity.
In contrast, nations that limit gender-separated education, such as Finland and Norway, historically have higher levels of performance and equity.
Although single-sex schooling in nations such as United States is relatively new, it is interesting to note that the underlying aim of improving student outcomes and engagement is often directed towards disadvantaged students attending state schools. It has been suggested that gender-segregated classrooms be made available to disadvantaged African American and Hispanic male students to overcome issues of stereotyping and poor engagement that often arise in mainstream coeducational classrooms.
In Australia, however, the accessibility of such programs remains more restricted. Single-sex schools are primarily independent, and thus available only to those of higher socioeconomic status. The superior educational resources afforded to independent schools in Australia offer a better explanation of augmented academic achievement than gender separation.
Research in Australia by the Queensland University of Technology has discussed the inaccessibility of single-sex schools, Queensland has a ban on gender segregation in state schools.
Australian education has an equity problem, and single-sex independent schools perpetuate this problem.
Gender segregation on the rise
The popularity of gender-segregated classrooms in English-speaking countries has steadily risen. In Australia and New Zealand, these schools exist primarily within the independent sector. In the United States and the United Kingdom, single-sex classrooms within co-educational state schools have flourished in recent years.
Even though single-sex classrooms have been thought to increase gender stereotyping, lots of research still advocates the approach. It seems the prospect of improving academic achievement and student aspirations justifies other possible negative effects.
The American Psychological Association’s study found single-sex schools and classrooms provide little benefit to students. Any proclamations of academic achievement are more likely to be influenced by curricula options, student demographics and the prevailing social structures associated with single-sex educational facilities, than by gender segregation itself.