Single-sex education offers no academic advantages but may lead to the development of gender stereotypes and sexism, a respected American psychology professor has revealed.
According to Professor Diane Halpern, past president of the American Psychological Association, recent analyses of same-sex and co-educational schooling failed to find any advantages of single-sex education.
However, Prof Halpern said research did show people become more stereotyped in their beliefs about other groups when they are segregated, and co-educational schools teach children essential life skills for interacting with the opposite sex.
“Children are going to live in a world that’s far more diverse than ever before – they are going to have to interact with females and males, they are going to have to understand that sometimes the girls are going to outscore the boys and that sometimes the boys will outscore the girls,” says Professor Halpern.
“After graduation, virtually everyone will work for and with females and males – students need to learn mutual respect and the social skills of interacting … We don’t have sex-segregated workplaces so why would we have sex-segregated schools?”
Indeed, international research by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found nations that limit same-sex education, such as Finland and Norway, historically have higher levels of equity.
A local perspective
The vexed question of whether to send children to a same-sex or co-educational school is especially topical in Australia, where both options are predominant features of the education system.
Andrew Martin, a professor of educational psychology at the University of New South Wales, says the effect of same-sex schooling on the development of gender stereotypes is small in comparison to what goes on at home and in popular culture.
“It’s really important not to make more of this than there is because there are other factors that would explain gender stereotypes – what happens during the dinner conversation at home, the modelling of your parents and the teachers in your school, the school culture regardless of the gender composition, the attitudes of your peers, and the sorts of role models you have in popular culture,” says Professor Martin.
“They are likely to have a greater impact than the gender composition of the school.”
Plus, he says he says there is some evidence to suggest that students in co-educational schools tend to make more gender stereotypical subject choices, while girls attending single-sex schools are slightly more likely to study science and technology subjects and boys attending same-sex schools are slightly more likely to choose classes in humanities and the arts.
“If there are different subject choices in single-sex versus co-ed that will obviously impact some of the career choices you’ll be making afterwards,” says Professor Martin.
Like parent, like child
Professor Martin says anecdotal evidence often amplifies scientific findings and a good school, whatever its gender composition, makes the most of its opportunities.
“Parents often react to their own education more than anything and it gets people fired up because there are such strong anecdotal views on single-sex versus co-ed schools,” says Professor Martin.
“A parent who had a very good experience of one [school system] is happy for their child to be in that system or if they’ve had an unhappy experience they’ll choose the other for their child.
“I suspect often their happiness or unhappiness isn’t tied to the gender composition, it’s probably just that school can be difficult.”