Single-sex schools are declining in Australia. But will gender equity in the classroom disappear with them?

Single-sex schools could disappear entirely within the independent sector in the next 15 years. But could this growing void be at the expense or benefit of gender equity in the classroom setting and beyond? (Image Source: Museums Victoria/Unsplash)

By Jasmin Teurlings, Alyssa Cairo and Alexandra Bull | @JasminTeurlings, @AlyssaCairo_ & @ally_bull19

The polarising debate over single-sex versus co-education has raged on for decades in Australia – but it could soon be a thing of the past. 

Researchers project that the declining trend of single-sex schools could result in them disappearing completely within the independent sector by 2035.

In the past 50 years, less than 2 per cent of more than 500 new independent secondary schools established in Australia have been single-sex.

Meanwhile, 48 co-educational schools have been created from what were once originally single-sex schools.

St Michael’s College, located in the western suburbs of Adelaide, is the latest in a long string of South Australian single-sex schools to open their doors to co-educational enrolments. 

In 1972 the first girls were enrolled in the college to undertake studies in their final year of schooling, and in 2008 the Year 8 cohort became co-educational.

Now the college has announced that from next year the primary campus will also transition to co-education with the introduction of girls into Reception classes.

Announcing the decision, principal John Foley and board chair Marie Dorrington wrote:

“The shift to co-education was notable, not just as a change to the college structure, but as a symbol of the inclusive culture of St Michael’s … The next logical progression of this story is the development of a Reception to Year 12 co-educational model that enhances our vision of community, challenge and choice and reflects a world in which women and men collaborate, work, live, lead and succeed as equals.”

Their announcement hints at a larger emerging discussion of the role of schools in promoting gender equity beyond the classroom – particularly for girls. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether single-sex or co-ed schools are better placed to achieve this is equally divisive.

University of South Australia’s Associate Professor Judith Gill has been instrumental in the transition of a number of other South Australian schools that have chosen to adopt co-education as well, including Pulteney Grammar School and Saint Ignatius’ College.

Professor Gill welcomes the shifting preference away from the ‘old fashioned’ model of segregating education based on gender as a good thing.

However, up until the late 20th century girls had significantly less access to education compared with boys. Before 1975 girls were much less likely than boys to complete school or progress to university, where they were again vastly outnumbered by their male counterparts.

Consequently, she says we feel indebted to the tradition of all-girls’ schools for establishing that females can and do achieve highly in curriculum areas that were once thought reserved for males.

But now that education is widely viewed as a universal right, much of the earlier gender discrimination has diminished, if not disappeared entirely.

“I hope that the teachers nowadays are much more gender-aware than they used to be and so the negative things about girls in co-ed—that they get overlooked, that they’re never asked the questions, it’s always the boys that dominate—are much less likely than once was the case,” she said.

“Teacher education should always include gender issues so that teachers in training are alerted to bad habits of past days and gender; and are ready to modify their practice or invite students to comment on their practice to be more equal – because the kids love to talk about that.”

However, principal of Loreto College Marryatville for girls, Dr Nicole Archard, said society still had a long way to go before gender equity was achieved in the education setting and beyond.

“If you want to see a change of women in society, girls’ schools will be the answer to that because they’ll be the ones developing the women that will take on that change,” she said.

“You always hear, ‘the world is co-ed therefore schools need to be co-ed in order to mirror that,’ and the whole point of girls education is to not replicate any inequity that exists – instead it’s about challenging and diverting: that’s why girls’ schools exist.

“Look at your issues of violence against women … [and a] lack of women in politics and so many different occupations. Girls’ schools are about ‘come on, let’s meet that head-on’.

“When gender equity exists, then we know our job is done.”

Dr Archard said there was a misunderstanding of all-girls education and people were frightened of communities of women.

“They think we’re doing something sinister. We’re not a cult,” she said.

“It’s a misconception that in girls’ schools you’re locked away from boys. We don’t have this barbed wire around the school that says, ‘no males allowed’.”

“There are lots of opportunities for girls to interact with boys, but when you have those interactions then you’ve been taught in an environment about what’s appropriate and what your place is in those conversations.”

While Professor Gill is generally in favour of co-education, she said gender context is not the most significant feature in terms of a school’s academic achievements.

“Often times I’m inclined to say it’s honestly not that important,” she said.

“The trouble is it’s hard … for parents to know what it’s like inside [a] school.”

“But one of the things they will see immediately is whether or not it is single-sex or co-ed – and given that parents are at least a generation older, they will have had their own experience in one or the other type of school.”

While the ongoing debate remains a vexed issue for parents, both principals of St Michael’s and Loreto agreed choice is the more important factor.

In a statement provided to On The Record, St Michael’s principal, John Foley, said the decision to transition was one based more on the evolving nature of the college, rather than a philosophical stance on co-education.

“Further, I would suggest that we are very fortunate that families have a range of enrolment profile options available in South Australia,” Mr Foley said.

“Simply, I respect the right of each school to provide models suitable for the needs of their community and each parent to choose based on the needs of their family.”

Despite her staunch advocacy for all-girls’ education, Dr Archard held the same position.  

“I’m not going to say something bad about a co-ed school because all schools are good schools and that’s really key. Different schools will deliver different things for different people and I’m not expecting every girl to go to a girls’ school,” she said.

“But the choice will always be there.”

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