The rumble in the jungle: Single-sex vs coeducational schooling

By Andrew Whitehouse, University of Western Australia

I have a confession to make…I went to an all-boys private school.

Go on, admit it. You just judged me a little bit, didn’t you?

I can’t blame you. Looking back – and even at the time – the whole experience was a tad surreal.

At 12 years of age, I, along with 149 other fresh-faced chaps, entered a world in which socks were to be worn knee-high, hair was to be kept above the collar, and shirts were to remain tucked; a world in which the sole purpose of recess was to find the most inventive way to destroy each-others’ uniforms; a world in which teachers’ names were contorted in the most pleasing of ways to resemble selective parts of the male and female anatomy.

But, despite all of that – or, more likely, because of it – my second confession is this: I loved it!

Perhaps it was just that the all-boy environment was the right ‘fit’ for me. I loved playing sport, enjoyed the humour and hijinks, and thrived in the camaraderie of this atmosphere.

But I’m keenly aware that not everyone had the same experience as me. And for these boys-now-men, my bet is that the all-boy environment was a chief source of their woes.

SIngle sex vs co-educational school

Image by EaglebrookSchool/Flickr

Single-sex vs. coeducational schooling

Along with politics and religion, the debate about single-sex (boys and girls separate) versus coeducational (boys and girls together) schooling is a topic best kept away from polite dinner conversation. Everyone has an opinion on this, and you can almost bet that your conversational partner will have a different one to you.

From the very earliest stages of parenthood, schooling is an issue that sits in the back of parents’ minds, making them wince every time it creeps into their consciousness. It would be a rare mother- or father-to-be, who hasn’t, even for the most fleeting of moments, considered whether their impending child would spend 12 of their most formative years surrounded by one sex or two.

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Most often, these choices are dictated by the experiences of the parents themselves. If they enjoyed their schooling, then their child will likely follow in their footsteps. If not, then you can be sure that the child will be ushered down a different path.

This approach makes perfect sense to me. A parent remembers their own experience, has a keen awareness of their child’s personality, and is able to combine the two to come out with a reasonable idea of what schooling model will suit best.

But, common sense aside (always a dangerous thing!), given the heated debate on this topic, I became intrigued as to what scientific research in this area has found. Prepare yourself.

Co-educational school

Image by Lichfield Live/Flickr

The science

My first stop was a 2005 report commissioned by the US Department of Education, which reviewed all studies examining single-sex versus coeducational schools up until that date.

It’s a hefty-document – all 128 pages of it – and I wouldn’t recommend it for bedtime reading, unless, of course, you yearn for dreams about the finer points of quantitative and qualitative statistics.

The researchers divided the findings of the 112 studies reviewed into those examining academic achievement and socio-emotional development during school, and in adult-life. What they found was quite interesting.

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Academic achievement at school:
One third of the studies in this area found that students from single-sex schools had better academic performance during the school years than students from coeducational schools. This was found for both males and females, for both primary and secondary schooling, and for all subjects.

However – and this is very important – the remaining two-thirds of the studies found no difference between the performance of students from the two types of schools.

Academic achievement after school:
Only four studies to that date (2005) had examined indicators of post-school academic achievement, such as university scores, university graduation and career achievement. Generally speaking, no differences were found between students who had attended single-sex and coeducational.

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Socioemotional development at school:
There was a complicated mish-mash of results here. (Scientists like to categorize such results under the wonderfully euphemistic descriptor ‘mixed findings’ – which basically means ‘how in the world am I going to be able describe this mess?’).

For example, single-sex school students tended to have better ‘self-concept’ (knowledge of self), but coeducational students had higher-levels of self-esteem (feelings of self-worth). Oh, and I must add that close to half of the studies found no difference in these measures between students from the two types of schools.

Confused? Me too.

Socioemotional development after school:
Again, very few studies have investigated this area. The few that have – and had a research design that passed muster – have found ‘mixed results’ (I’m not above using a good euphemism!).

Single-sex school graduates had reduced unemployment (males and females), a wider variety of occupations (females only), and increased political activism (females only). However, single-sex school students were more likely to have an eating disorder – though, please keep in mind that there was only one study in this area.

One thing of particular interest to me was the research investigating sex-role stereotyping (i.e., did they view men as the providers and women the home-makers?). Intriguingly, the results here were split: one study found these views were more common among ex-students of a single-sex school, and another which found these stereotypes more prevalent among ex-students of a coeducational school.

The one study that examined divorce-rates, found no difference between ex-students of single-sex and coeducational schools.

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Two notes of caution

So, that’s a summary of the research to 2005. Has much happened since? Yes, research has continued to percolate into the literature. But from my analysis, there hasn’t been any ‘game-changing’ research that alters much in the above review.

Nevertheless, I would like to tack on two caveats to this summary.

The first stems from a recent article by Dianne Halpern and colleagues in Science, which trumpeted the deliberately provocative title, “The pseudoscience of single-sex schooling”.

This paper attacked the science around the one area for which there is evidence that single-sex schooling may be beneficial – academic achievement during school. Specifically, the authors argued that many of the “apparent advantages dissolve when outcomes are corrected for pre-existing differences”. In plain English, they are saying that children entering single-sex schools may already be more academically advanced than students entering coeducational schools.

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My own reading of the situation is that, yes, certainly some studies have (quite stunningly!) failed to account for this possibility. However, there are also other studies which have examined this, and still found differences in academic achievement.

The second caveat is more of a reminder that educational systems differ between countries – often dramatically so. I wonder how much sense it makes to combine studies from Australia, Canada, the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, and South Korea (to name only a few)? I can only imagine a few similarities between the school-yards of Seoul and those of downtown Chicago.

What’s the verdict?

So, after all of that science, I have to say that I’ve come back to my original assessment of the situation: trust your good sense.

Think back to your own schooling, and think about your child’s attributes. Which do you think they’ll prefer?

You have all of this knowledge, and are therefore the expert. No amount of science can change that.

But one thing that I think the science has crushed, is the old stereotypes for pupils of all-boys schools (silver-spooned, one-track minded, walking fart-jokes), all-girls schools (the collective noun once being described to me as a ‘cat-fight of private-school girls’), and coeducational schools (more likely to end up in a court room than a board room) should be dead and buried.

While these caricatures may apply to a minority of students, on the whole, they just aren’t true.

Trust me, I’m an ex-private schoolboy.

Andrew Whitehouse does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

NOTE: Some of the comments below first appeared on The Kids Are All Right Forum.



  1. Sydney mum says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. I went to all-girls school for years 7 to 10, then co-ed for years 11 and 12. I thought this was quite good. I enjoyed my girls’ school (socially, not necessarily school work!) and I socialised with the boys from the boys school down the road. But when I went over to the co-ed school I think I was probably a bit silly and immature around the boys, and I think I noticed this in other girls that moved too. Whereas the girls who’d been at that co-ed school since year 7 were much more relaxed about it all. I also remained somewhat awkward around guys at uni. This is all even with a brother fairly close in age.

    I thought I’d follow the same pattern for my daughter – even though her year 6 teacher advised me to send her co-ed in high school (she said my daughter “thought like a boy” and worked well with boys in group work). My daughter was not happy in all-girls, and for various reasons (not that one) we moved her to co-ed at the end of year 7. I do love that she has great friends who are boys, and I think it is really healthy and normal to hang out with both sexes. I do think boys can be a distraction though, and the fear with girls is always that they will dumb things down in front of guys.

    I heard recently about a co-ed school that split kids up for classes only. That sounds like an interesting solution.

  2. I went to an all-boys’ school and I think it was the best thing for me. I didn’t have to worry about impressing girls during school hours and this allowed me to get on with my school work and footy. There was plenty of time for girls after school and on the weekends. And I’ve turned out okay. Some of my best friends are women!

  3. I love this topic. I did a whole bunch of reading on this subject and the conclusion I personally came to was, as a parent if you give a damn about your children’s education and your are involved in their education, it doesn’t matter what type of school you send your child to, they will do well.

    I read an article somewhere (might have been that kids who had access to books at home generally did better academically at school than those who didn’t have access to books. Irrespective of where they lay on the socio-economic ladder.

    For me it’s not about the school, it’s about whether or not the parent stays ‘plugged in” (thanks Dr Phil).

    So with that, it brings me comfort.

    Love & stuff
    Mrs M
    Maria Tedeschi (Mum’s Word) recently posted..DUMB, DRUNK & RACIST EP 2 – AUSTRALIAN PROTECTIONIST PARTYMy Profile

    • Thekids says:

      I think this is SO true. Parental involvement and interest is paramount. I know my daughter wishes I cared less sometimes, but I’m sure she’ll understand one day 🙂 Thanks for your comments Maria.

  4. tinkerbell says:

    i believe strongly that kids should go to a co-ed school.i believe that kids should learn from an early age how to interact with the opposite sex.

  5. allymum says:

    Our girls 15 & 18 attended co-ed primary & high schools. Both have had male friends, not boyfriends, my youngest has also really enjoyed getting ahead of the boys in woodwork!! Our high school trialled an all boy/all girl class for year 9 for the top 2 English classes. The girls class did really well, the boys class not so well. They have not repeated the trial. I am pleased they attend co-ed, after all school reflects society, you need to get on with all sorts of people.

  6. Mimbles says:

    My kids are going to the same co-ed high school that my husband and I attended and that my mother taught at. And it’s a comprehensive state school. I tell people I have a philosophical commitment to co-ed, comprehensive, public education because I believe it’s the model that has the best chance of providing quality education to all students. If only it were properly funded. *sigh*

  7. Beckylou says:

    I’m inclined to agree with the researcher in that parents do know their own child’s needs best and what works for their family. I also firmly believe that the school should suit the individual child, for some that may mean single sex and for others co-ed. It’s also important to remember that it is the quality of teachers and the relationship these teachers have with your child that will have the greatest positive impact on your child’s education. It is also well documented that boys perform better in a co-ed environment than girls but that boys also perform better again in a single sex environment.
    Having said all that I’m a product of a single sex girls school and my children all attend single sex schools. I like the fact that the facilities and educational programs can be designed to cater for just the one sex. I believe both sexes tend to explore subject faculties they may otherwise not be comfortable doing in the presence of the opposite sex; stereotypes are largely ignored and boundaries broadened. There are plenty of opportunities for both sexes to mix outside school hours and most private schools I know work hard at collaborating with schools of the opposite sex both educationally and socially. All my children are very happy at their schools and seem to have lots of friends of the opposite sex nor do I think I suffered socially when I arrived at uni because I spent my high school years at an all girls school.
    Modern educators agree that rather than focusing on the gender issue it’s more important to introduce boys to a variety of masculinities so they develop an understanding that no occupational group is essentially male or female, the same applies for female students. This would then produce more global citizens who would work toward more gender equality.
    There are opinions either way but the general thinking is that we need to produce global citizens who recognize gender equality and who don’t hold traditional and stereotypical ideas of masculinity and feminism. To achieve this the quality of teaching is the most important factor.



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