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Why do we have single sex schools? What’s the history behind one of the biggest debates in education?

When students walked through the sandstone gates of Sydney’s Newington College for the first day of school last week, they were met by protesters.

A group of parents and former students had gathered outside this prestigious school in the city’s inner west, holding placards decrying the school’s decision to become fully co-educational by 2033.

Protesters have even threatened legal action to defend the 160-year-old tradition of boys’ education at the school. One told Channel 9 they fear the change is driven by “woke […] palaver” that will disadvantage boys at Newington.

Newington is not the only prestigious boys school to open enrolments to girls. Cranbrook in Sydney’s east will also go fully co-ed, with the decision sparking a heated community debate.

This debate is not a new one. What is the history behind the single-sex vs co-ed divide? And why does it spark so much emotion?


Read more: As another elite boys' school goes co-ed, are single-sex schools becoming an endangered species?


What is the history of the debate?

Schools like Newington were set up at a time when the curriculum and social worlds for upper-class boys and girls were often quite different. Boys and girls were thought to require different forms of education for their intellectual and moral development.

The question of whether it’s a good idea to educate boys and girls separately has been debated in Australia for at least 160 years, around the time Newington was set up.

In the 1860s, the colony of Victoria introduced a policy of coeducation for all government-run schools. This was despite community concerns about “moral well-being”. There was a concern that boys would be a “corrupting influence” on the girls. So schools were often organised to minimise contact between boys and girls even when they shared a classroom.

Other colonies followed suit. The main reason the various Australian governments decided to educate boys and girls together was financial. It was always cheaper, especially in regional and rural areas, to build one school than two. So most government schools across Australia were established to enrol both girls and boys.

One notable exception was New South Wales, which set up a handful of single-sex public high schools in the 1880s.

These were intended to provide an alternative to single-sex private secondary schools. At that time, education authorities did not believe parents would agree to enrol their children in mixed high schools. Historically, coeducation has been more controversial for older students, but less so for students in their primary years.

A changing debate

By the 1950s, many education experts were arguing coeducation was better for social development than single-sex schooling. This was at a time of national expansion of secondary schooling in Australia and new psychological theories about adolescents.

In following decades, further debates emerged. A feminist reassessment in the 1980s argued girls were sidelined in co-ed classes. This view was in turn challenged during the 1990s, with claims girls were outstripping boys academically and boys were being left behind in co-ed environments.

Which system delivers better academic results?

There is no conclusive evidence that one type of schooling (co-ed or single sex) yields better academic outcomes than the other.

Schools are complex and diverse settings. There are too many variables (such as resourcing, organisational structures and teaching styles) to make definitive claims about any one factor. Many debates about single-sex vs co-ed schooling also neglect social class as a key factor in academic achievement.

What about the social environment?

Research about the social outcomes of co-ed vs single-sex schools is also contested.

Some argue co-ed schooling better prepares young people for the co-ed world they will grow up in.

Others have suggested boys may fare better in co-ed settings, with girls acting as a counterbalance to boys’ unruliness. But it has also been argued boys take up more space and teacher time, detracting from girls’ learning and confidence.

Both of these arguments rely on gender stereotypes about girls being compliant and timid and boys being boisterous and disruptive.

Key to these debates is a persistent belief that girls and boys learn differently. These claims do not have a strong basis in educational research.


Read more: We can see the gender bias of all-boys' schools by the books they study in English


Why such a heated debate?

Tradition plays a big part in this debate. Often, parents want their children to have a similar schooling experience to themselves.

For others it’s about access to specific resources and experiences. Elite boys schools have spent generations accumulating social and physical resources tailored to what they believe boys are interested in and what they believe is in boys’ best interests. This includes sports facilities, curriculum offerings, approaches to behaviour management and “old boys” networks.

Many of these schools have spent decades marketing themselves as uniquely qualified to educate boys (or a certain type of boy). So it’s not surprising if some in these school communities are resisting change.

More concerning are the Newington protesters who suggest this move toward inclusivity and gender diversity will make boys “second-class citizens”. This echoes a refrain common in anti-feminist and anti-trans backlash movements, which position men and boys as vulnerable in a world of changing gender norms. This overlooks the ways they too can benefit from the embrace of greater diversity at school.

As schools do the work to open up to more genders, it is likely they will also become welcoming to a wider range of boys and young men.

Jessica Kean receives funding from an Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative grant 'Australian Boys: Beyond the Boy Problem'.

Helen Proctor receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Kellie Burns previously received funding from the University of Sydney, Equity Prize.