A Redfield College debating team, 2015. Redfield blog

I have written previously on MercatorNet that public funding for schools cannot be conditional on whether or not a school subscribes to a prevailing ideology. No good can come of this.  Funding for religious schools cannot be tied to a condition of employing teachers who by their lifestyle undermine a school's ethos.

But neither can public funding of schools be conditional on an ideology of coeducation. Recently in the Australian press John Simpson, a former member of the board of (Presbyterian) Scotch College, made the case that single-sex schools have had their day in this country and do not deserve public financial support. (1)

He argued that they have been supported on economic grounds (being cheaper to establish that co-eds) but do not reflect the principles of diversity and equality seen in Australia’s multicultural society, nor live up to their supposed academic superiority. In any case no-one had established such a school in this country for 20 years, he said.

The last point is easy to refute: I write as the former Headmaster of two Sydney independent boys’ schools, Redfield College in the Hills district, and Wollemi College, founded in the west of Sydney in 2005. I am now on the board of Harkaway Hills College, which started in 2016 in Melbourne’s south east, a growing school modelled on the other Parents for Education schools in Sydney.

Despite recurrent criticism by progressive educationalists, single sex schooling has maintained an important role in many countries. In the United States between 2002 and 2012, the number of single-sex public schools grew from only about a dozen to an estimated 500, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. (2)

Contra Simpson, the persistence of this tradition is not due to economic considerations. Indeed single-sex schools are more expensive to create. Bigger coeducational schools have economies of scale. It costs more to duplicate campuses, school halls and libraries. There are other, more important reasons to set up and fund single-sex schools.  

By the way, let’s not be thrown off the scent by the patronising notion that, because government partly funds non-government schools in Australia, parents should be grateful and do it the state’s way. Political theory 1A tells us we are not in a communist state and we do not exist for the state. The state, with our taxes, is there to help us.

Simpson seems to argue that, as society is multicultural, schools should be coeducational. But if there is any logic in comparing co-ed schools with multicultural society, surely single-sex schools should be multicultural — as they generally are. He also beats the equality drum, but equality is not uniformity. If both boys and girls have the opportunity to attend single-sex schools, as they do, where is the lack of equality?

Finally, Simpson quotes Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) researcher Katherine Dix who says: “There appears to be no value-add in numeracy achievement and even a decline in reading achievement over time in single-sex schools compared with co-educational schools.”

Contrary to this finding, however, there is substantial evidence for superior academic results from single-sex schools. Recent studies suggest the significant educational advantages transcend the socio-economic profile of the families and the schools. (3)

In fact, Dix’s own tables on the ACER website show that boys in single-sex schools between Years 3 and 7 (the only data presented) retain 3.9 terms of numeracy advantage over coeducational students throughout these four years. Girls in single-sex schools were not far behind, but coeducational students failed to make up any ground on this. We are told that the results hold even after correction for socio-economic factors.  

In addition, there is significant evidence that students in single-sex schools outperform their co-ed counterparts on various measures of safety, and social and emotional development.

New research from the University of Queensland and the Australian Gender Equality Council focuses on aspects of resilience, and shows the superiority of single-sex schools in promoting self-confidence of girls. (4) The study of 10,000 girls showed that, although the self-confidence of pre-adolescent girls in the general population falls below that of boys and does not recover until old age, girls who are enrolled in single sex schools enjoy the same levels of self-confidence as boys.

But squabbling about which style of education is best actually misses the point.

Let us ask the parents what they want. There is absolutely no consensus that a child, because he or she is educated in a single-sex school, is disadvantaged, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. 

The five Parents for Education single-sex schools in Australia are patently providing outstanding academic education. For example, a Wollemi student in 2018 achieved a perfect HSC score of 99.95, and more than a third of the students achieved a Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 90-plus – unprecedented for a non-selective school in the far west of Sydney. But academic achievement is not the key issue either.

Nobody has a greater right than a child's parents to determine the moral agenda or the style education for a child. Parents have the right, and the duty, to follow their best judgement and place their children in the form of education in which they have most confidence. Some will judge by a school’s record in literacy and numeracy; others will place character or dance classes at the top of the list. This is the parent’s prerogative.

Consider the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Article 18 says “Governments should help parents by providing services to support them.” Article 20, that “Children who cannot be looked after by their own family must be looked after properly by people who respect their religion, culture and language.” In other words, schools and teachers are there to help, not to impose their own nanny principles.

We are in the age of sexuality education programs like Safe Schools, through which values conflicting with those of many parents are promoted in public schools. However, it is parents, not government, who are responsible for education of a child. Many politicians and academics have forgotten this, and many parents are hardly aware of it, but those who are aware can properly insist on exercising their rights.

Dr Andy Mullins was headmaster of Redfield College in Dural, NSW, (1996 – 2010), and Wollemi College (2011 – 2014). Currently he is on the board of the first Parents for Education school in Victoria, Harkaway Hills College. He is the author of Parenting for Character (Finch)

1. John Simpson, ‘One sex schools failing students’, The Australian, 9 January 2019
2. Riordan, Cornelius, Schools, Single-Sex. Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2015
3. cf R. Nidoy, Advantages of Single-Sex Schooling: Explanations of teachers who taught in both co-ed and single-sex schools, Third International Congress on Single-Sex Schools, sponsored by the European Association for Single-Sex Education, 2011
4. Fitzsimmons, T.W., Yates, M. S., & Callan, V. (2018). Hands Up for Gender Equality: A Major Study into Confidence and Career Intentions of Adolescent Girls and Boys. Brisbane, Qld: AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace – The University of Queensland. As reported by Jordan Peters, ‘Girls match boys in confidence at single-sex schools, study finds.’ Sydney Morning Herald , 11 January 2019.

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...