Part one of a two-part series examining both the single-gender and co-educational environments.

The debate over the relative merits of single-gender versus coeducation doesn’t get very heated in New Zealand. While there might be a bit of back and forth whenever a new study is published comparing the performance of students in both environments, proponents of coeducation say the missing bit in single-sex schools isn’t results, it’s the lack of rounded development in kids who don’t learn how to relate to the opposite sex, and must learn the ropes when they’re already on the verge of adulthood.

Debate is far hotter in the US, where gender-segregated classes within coeducational schools are back in vogue following a ruling that clarifies their legality.

The US debate has focused overwhelmingly on academic performance. Advocates of single-sex education point to a number of studies showing that both genders perform better academically within a gender-segregated environment, but opponents say that’s a simplistic conclusion that refuses to account for statistical bias, such as the undeniable fact that single-gender schooling, both here and around the Western world, is predominantly a rich people thing: in New Zealand, just over 23 per cent of our 116 single-gender state and integrated schools are decile 10.

That percentage declines steeply across the lower deciles, right down to 1.7 per cent at decile 1. We know that socioeconomics plays a huge part in student achievement, and therefore, at the very least, it would seem that more scrutiny is needed.

Another interesting point around the influence of gender segregation on student achievement: back in the 1990s there was a similar surge in enthusiasm for single-gender learning in the US. That uptick of 20 years ago makes for an interesting comparison. Before the turn of the millennium, there was lots of anguish going around that girls were being disadvantaged in coeducation; stymied and cowed by aggressive boys who disrupted and overshadowed their classmates of the supposedly less forthright gender.

Fast forward to the current US debate, and boys have become the marginalised party: as education moves towards a focus that tries to prepare learners for a collaborative world, as teaching practice becomes more nuanced and moves away from high-stakes competitive knowledge regurgitation, there is rising panic that boys are being left behind. According to current scholarship, the numbers justify the alarm.

If one accepts this widening disparity between the academic performance of the genders, then it would seem to follow that single-gender schools might have the answer: “Let us educate your children in an environment that allows us to concentrate on the learning needs of boys and girls, away from boys and girls”, say proponents.

Opponents might question how that helps to prepare kids for the gender reality of the world, and might also say that education hasn’t become more collaborative because it’s fashionable: modern education is a response to the demands of modern work, and modern life.

Beneath the surface

What’s striking when speaking to principals of both single-gender and coeducational schools, is that none believe their model to be just ‘better’ than the other. Principals of both stripes, who more often than not have considerable experience on the other side of the fence, say they believe it’s important that parents and students have the choice, and that different environments suit different kids.

Tracy Walker is the principal of Waitaki Girls’ High School, Oamaru; a town that’s in an interesting position: both state schools are single gender (the other being Waitaki Boys’ High School), and the only coeducational school in the area is St Kevin’s College, a Catholic integrated school.

Walker says that New Zealand should consider itself lucky that parents have options.

“I’m not going to say that it’s better, because I can see both sides of the argument. I’ve taught in co-ed for 20 years, but I think it’s really important that we have the option of single gender.

“As principal of a state girls’ school, I think that we can specialise in gender-specific education for girls, and I can see the benefit of that. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think that there were benefits to [single-gender education].”

Further north, David Bovey, rector of Palmerston North Boys’ High School agrees.

“I would never say that single-sex education is better – the fundamental issue is choice, I believe. It simply depends on the child.

“We’ve got boys here who have brothers who go to co-ed schools in town because their parents have decided that that’s what suits their sons.”

As mentioned, one of the key concerns voiced by US opponents of segregated learning is that “the world isn’t gender divided, so why should our schools be?” The implication is that young people of both genders are disadvantaged by a lack of contact with the opposite sex, and don’t get the chance to construct an identity that includes interaction between boys and girls.

Fertile ground?

A related argument, and one that’s close to the bone in New Zealand right now, is the fear that single-gender schools create an environment in which gender stereotypes are reinforced in a vacuum, right when young people are forming their views of the world. Opponents of single-gender schooling would say that boys’ schools are fertile ground for the perpetuation of misogyny, and girls’ schools allow young women to develop a more two-dimensional attitude to the opposite sex than they would have otherwise.

Both Walker and Bovey say that although it may seem counterintuitive, single-sex schools can actually help both genders to become more developmentally rounded, because the opposite sex isn’t there to play up to. They both seem to be saying that we’re looking at the issue the wrong way around: it’s the presence of the opposite sex that can reinforce gender stereotypes, at a vulnerable time in young lives.

“It’s about having breathing room to start becoming men and women,” says Walker. “But at the same time we’re creating a space where kids are shielded from the pressures of gender, for a while at least. Modern thinking around single-gender schools talks about young men and women constructing an identity on their own terms.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between teenagers of both genders, but there are also a lot of differences. I think girls are under enormous pressure, around sexual stereotyping, role models in the media – the ‘Kardashian effect’, as I call it.

“We are able to put all our energies and focus into working with girls, to help break down those stereotypes – to examine them, break them open, and break them down, and actually say to these girls ‘is Kim Kardashian a role good role model?’”

Walker also says that in her experience it’s easy to fall into grievously outdated gender role expectations in a coeducational environment.

“Having spent 20 years in co-ed schools, an observation I’ve made is that [in a single-gender scenario] girls are more willing to put their hands up. I found that, for example, in a coeducational environment, boys were often expected to do the technical tasks. Without that expectation, our girls know that they need to learn to do the lighting and the sound for a school production, for example, that they have to step up. They’re not going to sit back and wait for the boys to do those things.”

While David Bovey acknowledges that a lack of face time with girls could mean that boys may develop communication skills at a slower rate than those co-educated, he also says that boys are free to be themselves and get involved at Palmerston North Boys’ High School.

“What we keep finding is that we seem to have boys who are more likely to get involved in those sorts of things, particularly in the areas of music and drama, where boys are sort of putting themselves out there in what can be an uncomfortable experience for them when girls are around. They’re less likely to put themselves ‘at risk’ if you like when they’re surrounded by girls.”

Collaboration and communication

Both principals also point out that there’s plenty they can do in collaboration with other single gender schools, and that we should remember that this isn’t the 1950s: thanks to the pervasiveness of modern communication, there is plenty of interaction in the lives of young people these days.

“It’s our responsibility,” says Bovey, “to work alongside the community and with parents to make sure that gender stereotyping isn’t something that boys leave with after five years surrounded by testosterone.

“To some degree, [opponents of single-gender schools] probably have a point. But I believe young people these days have so much more interaction with the opposite sex than they did when I was growing up. They seem to be far more socially involved these days, and social media plays a role there. Of course, social media has probably caused as many problems for schools as it has benefited kids.”

Speaking of social media, the public perception of single-gender schooling has not been helped by recent instances of shocking misogyny being disseminated by boys’ school students on social media. Bovey agrees that it’s not a great look, but sees coincidence where others have talked of ‘lad culture’.

“I think that there but for the grace of God goes every school with boys in the country. The fact that there’s been a couple of single-sex schools in the media for the wrong reasons lately isn’t a good look, is it?

“The other thing we’ve got to consider is that those sorts of comments might previously have been said by a group of mates in the playground and not gone any further. Now they’re out in the open, because young men make poor choices about what they put on social media. That just exacerbates the situation.

“I would also say that those young men would never go within cooee of saying those sorts of things to someone’s face. They’re young men with incredibly poor judgement, and they’ve made some terrible comments that they believed were amusing. That’s exactly the sort of thing that we’ve got to make sure that we’re stamping out.”

Different strokes

Despite the fact that research has pointed to far more similarities than there are differences between boys and girls, studies have pointed to the fact that boys and girls apparently learn differently. Walker says her opinion on the matter has been formed by the evidence of her eyes and ears, over a long teaching career.

“They’re all teenagers, and there are similarities of course. But there are also gender-specific differences. For example, I think girls enjoy working in that collaborative model, whereas boys often enjoy risk-taking or individual pursuits. [At WGHS] we can tailor our teaching, and make the most of the way that girls learn. So I think that being able to nurture those things in a conducive environment is a positive.”

What do the kids think?

Education Review asked students what they think about the pros and cons of single gender education.  

From Waitaki Girls’ High School:

“To be honest, I didn’t really want to because it would be my first time going to an all-girls school, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about whether the girls would judge me on my appearance, or if they would be nice and kind, or the complete opposite.” – Utumalama Latavao.

Would you have chosen a single gender school if the choice had been entirely yours?

“Since I went to a rural primary school, we heard many positive things about students who had been at my primary school and had gone on to Waitaki Girls’ which appealed to me and my parents. Both of my parents also went to Waitaki schools. – Renata Burnett.

What do you think is great about being at an all-girls school?

“I like how you can be yourself and turn up to school without caring what you look like. I find that my friends who attend co-ed schools spend at least 30 minutes in front of the mirror in the morning, worrying if they look good enough to go to school.” – Georgie Laurenson.

“I really enjoy the social and academic aspects of being at an all-girls school, because of the way that we work together to help each other out, without distractions.” – Renata Burnett.

“The cool thing about being at an all-girls school is that we are all girls, so we can be ourselves. We don’t have the pressure of making sure we look good all the time, because there are no boys around. Also I think being at an all-girls school helps me and others strive and push more to do things to do the best of our ability.” – Utumalama Latavao.

Do you think you’re just as able to get on with the opposite gender as someone who goes to a co-ed school?

“As I have gotten older I have found it much easier as I wasn’t so shy and there were more social events with boys popping up, so I got used to getting on with them pretty easily. I think that co-ed students possibly do have a slight advantage as they are used to being around the opposite gender all the time. – Georgie Laurenson.

“I believe so, yes, because the majority of us participate in events outside of school that involve the opposite gender. I also take the bus to school and have a class at Waitaki Boys’ so I feel able to get on with the opposite gender as I would if I went to a co-ed school.” – Renata Burnett.

“Yes and even better because you do not have as much pressure and you are more open and confident to say things you possibly couldn’t if you were a co-ed school.” – Utumalama Latavao.

From Palmerston North Boys’ High School:

Would you have chosen a single gender school if the choice had been entirely yours?“I chose not to follow the rest of the family and go co-ed. However, the choice was also influenced by the distance from where I lived to PNBHS, as well as the fact the majority of the kids I went to primary school with were going to one school.”

“Yes, I would have. It was cool sharing with the opposite gender, but here at Palmerston North Boys’ it allows you to be more confident. I have only just started here and all my friends here I can refer to as brothers.”

What do you think is great about being at an all-boys school?

“One of the positives I have noticed about an all boys’ school is the level of competition: as boys we all have a natural desire to compete, and by being at an all boys’ school we are matched up with high competition.”

“I like the discipline and structure and less pressure to perform in front of the opposite gender.”
“I think the classes are a lot more comfortable here in a crowd of boys. It makes it a lot easier to be yourself.”

What do you think might be not so great?

“With the growing rate of social media, teens are less interactive with each other so for teens at a same-sex school they can be sheltered from how the other sex really is, which I believe is harmful to the development of relationships in this day and age.”

“I think a boys-only school is not so great because we don’t have as much experience with young women/peers, especially if you (depending on upbringing) have come from a small country school or board at a boys-only school, you may socially struggle with girls your age. This may take a toll on your future.”


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