Single-sex schools `better for teenaged boys and girls’

Boys and girls in single-sex settings average better year 12 results, with TER scores 15 to 22 percentile points higher than the scores of students in coeducational settings, according to Melbourne research.

The gap exists even after allowing for different school sectors and students’ differing abilities.

Boys and girls in single-sex settings were also more likely to be better behaved in the classroom and to find their school enjoyable, their curriculum relevant and teachers responsive, said the study’s author, Ken Rowe, principal research fellow with
the Australian Council for Educational Research.

“The reasons for such differences are complex,” said Dr Rowe. “But research evidence suggests that coeducational settings are limited in their capacity to accommodate the large differences in cognitive, social and developmental growth rates of girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 16.”

He attributes the difference partly to “the two-thirds rule”: “Two-thirds of the teacher’s time in a coeducational environment, regardless of the gender of the teacher, is spent managing either the ego-tripping behavior of the boys or the very aggressive, assertive behaviors of the girls, which means less time is spent on task.”
Dr Rowe said boys and girls were out of synch with each other as teens because of differences in physiology and cognitive development, with girls maturing earlier. “So the girls have to deal with pretty juvenile, male macho kind of behaviors.” There was less showing off in single-sex classrooms, he said.

The news contradicts the prevailing wisdom on schools and gender, which was that girls performed better in single-sex environments away from boys’ rowdiness and boys did best in co-ed settings, where girls’ behavior helped improve the boys’.

But Dr Rowe warned parents not to automatically choose single-sex schooling on the basis of his findings, saying that teacher quality, not sex-segregation, was the most influential factor affecting students’ outcomes. Single-sex settings accounted for 10 to 12 per cent of the residual variance in outcomes while teaching quality accounted for 59 per cent, he said.

He pointed out that Melbourne’s top schools, which are Jewish, are coeducational but their students excel because of the quality of teachers and the schools’ culture of learning. “It also depends on `horses for courses’; some children thrive in single-sex environments and some students do better in a co-ed environment,” he said.

Dr Rowe based his research on several studies including an analysis of the achievements of 270,000 year 12 students in 53 VCE subjects over six years (1994-1999). The findings that single-sex students were more satisfied were based on longitudinal studies of more than 16,000 students from 200 government, Catholic and independent primary and secondary schools.

First published in The Age.