Single-sex schools rate poorly in study

GENDER BLEND: Wellington High School pupils Thomas Raethel, 16, and Tess Norquay, 17, both enjoy co-ed classrooms.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/ The Dominion Post
GENDER BLEND: Wellington High School pupils Thomas Raethel, 16, and Tess Norquay, 17, both enjoy co-ed classrooms.

A new international report says single-sex schooling offers no benefits and may be socially harmful.

The article, published today in Science magazine by researchers from the American Council for CoEducational Schooling, says biological differences between the sexes have no significant effect on learning.

It says there is no scientific support for single-sex education, and that separating boys and girls in school may increase gender stereotyping and sexism. But Education Ministry figures show pupils at New Zealand single-sex schools achieve better NCEA results than those at co-ed schools.

Co-author psychologist Diane Halpern said in a Science podcast that the evidence for single-sex education was mere "pseudoscience". "A lot of the rationale for single-sex education is presented as though it's based on sound science, and it really isn't.

"We often hear of things like boys and girls learn differently ... but the biology of learning is exactly the same."

Segregating pupils by gender could have negative social effects, including increased sexual stereotyping and sexism, she said.

"It increases intergroup hostility and does not encourage the kind of respectful interaction that we want boys and girls to learn while they're in school."

The article's claims contrast with findings in a New Zealand study published in 2009, which studied the difference between co-ed and single-sex education over a 25-year period.

"The New Zealand data very clearly shows boys do worse in co-ed schools, and there is no gender gap in single-sex schools," the New Zealand study's supervisor, University of Otago professor David Fergusson, said yesterday.

"And that can't be explained away by the fact boys and girls going to single-sex schools are brighter, or come from better socio-economic backgrounds, or other factors."

Boys have been lagging behind girls in high school performance for the past three decades. Education Ministry figures show that in 2009's National Certificate of Education Achievement, 50 per cent of girls passed level 3 compared with 37 per cent of boys.

Single-sex school pupils achieved on average 5 per cent to 20 per cent above their co-ed counterparts last year, however, statisticians noted this might reflect pupils from wealthier, high-decile single sex schools doing better.

Wellington Girls' College principal Julia Davidson said single-sex schools were not for every pupil but were the better fit for many. "Different schools suit different kids and in New Zealand, we're lucky – in most centres you can choose the one that works best for you."

Ms Davidson rubbished Dr Halpern's claims that separating the sexes in school had negative social consequences.

Wellington High School acting principal Dominic Killalea said single-sex schools in Wellington were perceived as being of a higher standard.

"There is a class system in place and a belief that Wellington College and Wellington Girls' are part of that elite, and will provide a better education than Wellington High or some other school.

"[But] the world is co-educational, so why do we still have this antiquated system?"

Co-ed environment the natural selection for some

It didn't take much convincing for Tess Norquay to move from a single-sex college to arts-oriented Wellington High School.

The year 12 student spent one year at Wellington Girls' College before transferring to the only co-ed high school in central Wellington.

"I basically went to Girls' because it's where my sister was and it made sense with where my family lived."

Since the move, 17-year-old Tess has found WHS to be a better fit, with the mixed-gender classes providing a more natural environment.

"You would never find a workplace with only females, so this prepares you for the outside world much better.

"It's so important to have friends from both sides of the fence."

Getting distracted by the opposite sex said more about the pupil than the education method, Tess said.

"If they want to be distracted they will find a way. Who is sitting next to you won't change that."

Classmate Thomas Raethel said Wellington High suited pupils who preferred a more self-directed style of learning. "You really see how much of a difference it makes. People who are incredibly driven and intelligent move here because the [single-sex] environment just didn't suit them.

"It seems those students were put on a more linear path that didn't work. Here we get to choose our way and gender doesn't come into it."

The Dominion Post