The Problem with Single Sex Schooling

I read with horror last week’s news that a survey at Christchurch Girls High School found more than 20 girls had been raped. 

I watched with even more disgust as the story, which should have caused a national outrage, had largely disappeared by the late afternoon. 

One phrase, however, stood out to me in the original article: “Parents of a girl at Christchurch Girls High School have applauded the school’s bravery while challenging boys’ schools to lead the change in sexual behaviour”. 

New Zealand has as issue with how we teach our young people to interact with the opposite sex, and I believe this is the result of our culture with single-sex schooling.

Single sex schooling is mandatory in parts of Africa and the Middle East, as well as on the rise in places such as China where the academic achievements of girls overtaking boys over recent decades, has seen a reported “resurgence” of single-sex education. 

Single sex schooling has been something I have had to come to terms with since moving here. Being brought up in Sweden, single sex schooling simply does not exist. 

However, both my father and husband are products of single sex schools, so I feel I can speak on the matter with some conviction. But the world has changed significantly since they were at school.

As I look around the world, the UK and Australia have rapidly been moving away from single sex schooling, in the US co-education has been embraced in their schooling system for generations. 

Yet in New Zealand, it appears not much is changing.

Instead, advocates of single-sex schools claim academic outcomes for both boys and girls are better without the other gender. That each gender learns better without the “distraction” of the opposite sex. 

This is not entirely true. In fact, there is growing research showing the academic difference between single-sex and co-ed schools is insignificant. 

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, University of Melbourne researcher Anna Dabrowski says parents are being “sold the myth” that single-sex education is superior, despite the bulk of research showing differences in academic achievement are “negligible”. 

She adds that “when social, emotional, psychological and equity impacts are also considered, single-sex education is potentially harmful”. 

As a mother raising a son and a daughter, with a third on the way, I have never in my life given more thought to schooling. 

I grew-up in a very middle-income suburb in Stockholm, where there was no option about what school you went to. You simply moved from the local primary school to the local intermediate.  

My best friends from school were an even split between boys and girls. I was at ease at talking with boys as I was with girls, and I believe this has helped shape who I am as a leader – never feeling daunted when dealing with the opposite gender. 

And despite living in central Auckland, amongst the “top” single sex schools, our children attend the local primary school. 

It is not on the surface an easy sales pitch. 

The facilities at the school are underwhelming, the opportunity for extended learning is limited as are extracurricular activities and sports. But the school has an incredible heartbeat, and the social learning is ripe. Most importantly to us as parents, the school has diversity both in terms of gender and ethnicity. 

The fact that our son has built strong relationships with his female peers, while not surprising, has further reinforced to me the importance of co-ed schooling.

Most of our friends who send their child to single sex schools do so because of the education and extracurricular activities on offer rather than it being single sex, which I understand.

But schools must offer more than academic achievement. It must teach us how to relate to, and work alongside, people who are different to us. 

And it needs to teach our children how to be seen and be heard by people different from us. 

Because if only half of the population learn to hear and see us, then both the child speaking and the one listening, are missing out. 

I love seeing girls and boys in leadership roles across the school, with our son equally in awe of his female and male house captains. It is my belief that children must see both their male and female peers in leadership roles. 

In terms of the academic aspect, I like girls and boys being benchmarked against each other; it is wonderful for our son to see the academic achievement of his female peers. 

As someone who has employed many people in my life, I notice a difference in those coming out of co-ed schooling versus those who have had single sex schooling.  

One team member told me following his single sex education, it had taken him several years to build the confidence to be able to deal with female colleagues and bosses. Despite having a strong mother and sisters. He simply did not know how to navigate the opposite gender. 

And I encounter women who have been through all female schooling and simply do not know how to speak to or interact with men. 

I strongly believe that when girls and boys are taught how to positively collaborate and work together, we drive better societal outcomes. 

Because the truth is that life is about so much more than where we went to school or the academic achievements of our youth. We need to prepare our children for the real world and the last time I checked that world was both female and male. 

When it comes to the future of our education system, we need to start listening to the evidence, see what is happening internationally and start taking a more progressive approach.

A pragmatic approach may encourage co-ed schools but offer some single sex classes which could be a happy medium that both sides of the argument may accept.  

But something must change, because we need young men not to see young women as sex objects or rare and mysterious creatures, but as their equals. Co-education helps achieve this. 

Only by doing this will we learn to grow together and finally reap the benefits of a more equitable and diverse country.