The Australian Psychological Society Congress this week will hear Diane Halpern, former president of the American Psychological Association, speak on “Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities: What We Know and Don’t Know and Why it Matters”. Apparently she will state that research is unable to show that boys and girls learn differently in the classroom.

This is surprising. I have been 35 years teaching in both co-educational and single sex schools. This is not my observation. Nor do I know many practising teachers who would agree.

A key source from which Professor Halpern draws is a metastudy by Janet Hyde published in 2013. This study was deficient in areas which I have identified elsewhere. It is the application of metastudy methodologies to the social sciences in an attempt to further a social agenda. The study was designed to demonstrate that gender differences are a social construct, at least this was the a priori belief of the researcher, and the study came up with evidence. Both Janet Hyde and Diane Halpern hold similar views on gender. Diane Halpern has been a prominent advocate against single sex classes in the USA.

Metastudies are marvellous things. And they are notoriously difficult things to do well. Mark Russo an expert in metastudy design has written, “If it is well conducted, the strength of a meta-analysis lies in its ability to combine the results from various small studies that may have been underpowered to detect a statistically significant difference.” In fact Janet Hyde’s approach was quite the opposite. She took a great number of studies that actually showed significance, and by processing the data was able to make the significant results disappear. Presto.

This is not a debate about what causes bridges to collapse or whether radiation therapy gives better prospects than chemotherapy for treatment of a given cancer. It is a very different matter to use metastudies to draw conclusions about what is fulfilling for a human being. It is like using an oscilloscope to measure loyalty. Good luck.  

It is beyond the competence of metastudies to apply them to fields where there are myriad variables. What questions would test for gender bias? What constitutes bias in the first place? Do all the studies ask exactly the same questions? Or manifest the same philosophical assumptions? And what metastudy could possibly bring together papers not only that they be sufficiently comparable but so as to be able to discern a grand trend?

But all of this 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. Therefore parents have the right, and the duty, to follow their best judgement and place their children in the form of education they have most confidence in. Some will define education about learning literacy and numeracy, others will place character reinforcement at the top of the list. This is the parent’s prerogative.

Nobody other than a child’s parents has the right to establish the moral agenda for that child’s education. Consider these three articles of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Article 18: Both parents share responsibility for bringing up their children and should always consider what is best for each child. Governments should help parents by providing services to support them, especially if both parents work. Article 20: Children who cannot be looked after by their own family must be looked after properly by people who respect their religion, culture and language. Article 29: Education should develop each child’s personality and talents to the full. It should encourage children to respect their parents, their cultures and other cultures.

It is parents, not governments, who are responsible for education of a child; governments have the duty to facilitate the desires of parents in this matter. We have forgotten this. But of course we are in the age of safe schools where architects of the program cynically mock parents whose rights they are usurping. We are in an era where politicians and academics don’t get it.

Andrew Mullins is Adjunct Professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia.  

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...