Comment: Views on single-sex V co-ed don’t hold up

The prevailing wisdom is that, while co-ed schooling might be good for teaching boys and girls the finer points of how to interact and work with the opposite sex, their academic performance suffers. This applies to girls in particular.

But is this really the case? Research published in this month’s edition of the academic journal, Sex Roles, suggests when you factor in prior academic attainment, the differences in boys’ and girls’ academic performance between single and mixed-sex classrooms goes away.

Researchers looked at results from 266 secondary school students who were divided into single-sex and mixed classes, each with an equivalent number of high, medium and low achievers based on prior academic performance.

At the end of the year, students took the same standardised tests for science, maths, information and communications technology (ICT), drama, music, English and foreign language.

When their results were compared with the previous year, researchers found that kids in single-sex classrooms did not perform any better than those in the mixed classes. Regardless of the class type, good kids did well, mid-level kids achieved mid-level results and the strugglers still struggled. The only noticeable difference was that girls in mixed-gender classes performed slightly better in humanities subjects than peers in the single-sex classes.

What gives? Why have we been told that single-sex schools are better for girls’ educational outcomes? The reason is that higher performing kids are more likely to go to those schools, and therefore skew the data. The view that single-sex schools are better for academic performance seems to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents who prize academic results above all else and are perhaps anxious about their child’s academic performance will tend to choose single-sex schooling over the co-ed variety. In the process, this boosts the overall performance of single-sex schools.

When it comes to educational attainment, it’s not the schooling model that matters, it’s the kid. Which means we can all take a deep breath and stop fretting about our kids’ educational outcomes. Instead, our secondary school decisions can be based on the sort of values we want our kids to graduate with, and what we want for our kids socially.

  • Kasey Edwards (far left) is a management consultant and author of Guilt Trip.