Single-sex schools: we wouldn’t segregate kids by race, so why do we still do it by gender?

Haven’t we moved on from this? Elgin County Archives/Flickr, CC BY-SA

It was recently announced that for the first time in its history, The Armidale School of NSW would allow female students to enrol. The prestigious school is one of several single-sex institutions making a move towards coeducational education, reflecting a trend in Australia and the United Kingdom.

The Armidale School’s announcement is a welcome decision, particularly given there is little evidence to support the segregation of students on the basis of sex or gender as a means to promote academic achievement.

In fact, single-sex schooling has the potential to cause more harm than good.

Single-sex schooling doesn’t promote achievement

To date, research has failed to demonstrate that single-sex education produces better academic outcomes when compared to coeducational schooling. Proponents of single-sex schooling argue that girls flourish in calm environments, free from the sexual pressures represented by their “disruptive” male peers, and boys benefit from energetic, girl-free spaces.

Yet studies argue that any perceived academic advantages of single-sex schools disappear when other variables, such as socioeconomic background and parental education levels, are considered.

A number of analyses have examined the impact of single-sex education on academic achievement. In 2014, a large-scale study of more than 20 nations examined the extent to which single-sex schooling led to superior academic outcomes. It found the difference between coeducational schooling and single-sex education to be negligible. This finding echoes many other studies conducted in Australia and other countries around the world.

Similarly, when education researcher John Hattie examined the effect of gender separation on student outcomes in his well-known meta-analysis of influences on learning, there was little to suggest that gender-based segregation offered any academic advantage.

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) further support the lack of evidence of any link between single-sex schooling and academic outcomes.

Female and male brains are different – but gender is a more complex matter

While it has been argued that boys and girls have different “learning preferences”, there is little evidence that this is sex- or gender-specific, and no evidence that teaching to those supposed differences makes any difference to students’ learning outcomes.

The male and female brains do have subtle differences, but there’s no evidence to suggest this affects learning. from www.shutterstock.com

Female brains do differ from male brains, both anatomically and developmentally, but this differentiation is minor, not directly related to the child’s ability to learn and arises not only from genetic factors, but also sociocultural and environmental factors.

These differences are often used to support the claim that single-sex schools are necessary to provide differentiated education which better accommodates those neurological differences.

This is a reasonable hypothesis, but the real test of its validity is not the mere existence of those brain differences, but whether teaching to those differences actually leads to improved educational outcomes.

In the case of academic outcomes, such differentiation does not. In fact, in the case of social, emotional, psychological and social- and gender-equity outcomes, it is clear single-sex schools can produce worse outcomes and may actually be harmful to children.

Opponents of single-sex schooling in the United States have argued that separation on the basis of sex and gender is akin to racial segregation and facilitates inequity between students.

Like the outdated practice of segregating students based on race, sex- and gender-based segregation ignores the complexity of students, their sexuality and gender and sexual identities, facilitating a culture of sexism stereotypes and discrimination.

Single-sex schools also contribute to the construct of a false dichotomy between male and female gender. Forcing students into categories of boys and girls ignores how students perceive and talk about themselves in terms of their gender.

Single-sex education also perpetuates the myth that gender is synonymous with sex. It is not. Sex is predominantly but not exclusively binary, and is biologically determined. Gender and gender identity, however, are complex phenomena arising from an interaction of many ideological, psychological and sociocultural factors, all of which are culturally and temporally relative.

Delineating schools on the basis of this artificial dichotomy perpetuates the myth of both a gender binary and a gender-identity binary. For students who do not fall within these relative norms, or whose gender identities do not align with their biological sex, significantly higher rates of suicide, suicide attempts, self-harm, depressive illnesses and bullying are the tragic outcomes.

This is a notable indictment of single-sex education systems, as education has the power to undo these ill-founded and biologically inaccurate stereotypes. While increasing awareness of adolescent sex and gender issues is a step in the right direction, segregation based on students’ sex or gender is not.

There’s no place for single-sex schooling in the Australian education landscape

The decline of institutions offering single-sex education in Australia and Britain reflects a welcome movement towards inclusive forms of education.

Just as it is not acceptable to segregate students on the basis of socioeconomic status, race or culture, there is no place for segregation on the basis of sex or gender.

While parents and carers have the right to select programs designed to enhance educational opportunities, Australian students also deserve an opportunity to interact and engage with each other, regardless of perceived and socially constructed “differences”.

Promoting such opportunities prepares students for life beyond the classroom, a skill that is more important than the purported myth of academic achievement driven by advocates of single-sex schools.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.