Last week, Sydney’s Cranbrook School – whose alumni include Kerry and James Packer and Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes – announced it will be fully co-educational by 2029.
Cranbrook joins a growing list of private schools around the country that are either considering going co-ed or have already done so. These include Newington and Barker College in Sydney, The Armidale School in NSW and Canberra Grammar in the ACT.
Does this mean we are seeing the beginning of the end of all-boys’ schools?
Single sex vs co-ed
Single sex vs co-ed debates have been going for decades in education circles. Which creates better outcomes? Is the answer different for boys than for girls?
It’s also one that many parents have a strong personal view on, perhaps influenced by what they experienced growing up.
The short answer is, decades of research into the topic remains inconclusive.
When it comes to students’ academic achievement, the biggest predictor of success is not gender but socio-economic status, whether they live in a rural or remote area, and race (especially if they are Indigenous).
The gender question
When it comes to social outcomes, the debate becomes more complicated.
Some research has criticised single-sex schools for segregating girls and boys, exaggerating differences between them and putting them in opposition to each other. This is not helpful when preparing students for understanding gender diversity and negotiating the world beyond school.
But research has also shown how boys take up much more physical space and teacher time in schools and classrooms than girls. Boys tend to be more disruptive, and require more discipline and attention.
Some research indicates boys may do better in co-ed environments than girls. Education researchers have long-acknowledged that girls can be a positive influence on boys’ behaviours – but to the detriment of their own learning. For example, girls may be asked to sit next to disruptive boys as a calming influence.
This, of course, reproduces inaccurate and tired gender stereotypes of girls as passive and diligent and boys as boisterous and unruly.
What did #MeToo do?
A critical recent shift has also been the #MeToo movement. In the education context, in 2020, former Sydney private school student Chanel Contos started a petition asking for students to share their stories of sexual assault.
In response to Contos’ petition, Cranbrook’s head prefect at the time, Asher Learmonth made a speech, noting, “Our school features heavily […] too heavily […] once again.” Cranbrook was among the schools Contos wanted to see introduce consent education.
The reckoning about gender relations in general and the school petition in particular, has focused much-needed attention on the sexism, misogyny and abuse that can breed in hyper-masculine environments.
All-boys’ schools also tend to be private schools – and this privileged environment can amplify a sense of entitlement. The point is, all or mostly male environments (whether they be in sport, business or politics) are not good for gender equality.
A social shift
What we are seeing here is not a shift in educational theory, but a shift in society’s expectations. As Cranbrook school leaders explained their decision to go co-ed:
Many see the transition as being a necessary and inevitable step forward in the context of a modern society.
But when we’re talking about the shift to co-ed, don’t forget that private schools are also businesses and they have to attract students.
Parents may be more attracted to co-educational private schools given the recent stories about the culture at some all-boys’ schools thanks to the schools’ petition and other high-profile reports of sexist behaviour. Going co-ed is not just a way to foster a “modern” environment at school, it makes good business sense as well.
Including girls in all-boys’ schools might seem a good solution to the problem and prevalence of sexism. However this is not an easy fix. Unhealthy attitudes about gender are rife in all schools as they are in the broader social world.
So, all schools need to be supported to create safe, respectful learning and social environments, with adequate training and teaching resources.