One of Australia’s most prestigious boys’ schools has just announced that it will go coeducational.
Last week, Sydney’s Cranbrook School – whose alumni include Kerry and James Packer and Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes – announcement it will be fully co-ed by 2029.
Cranbrook joins a growing list of private schools across the country that are considering going coeducational or have done so. These include Newington and Barker College in Sydney, the Armidale School in New South Wales and Canberra Grammar in the act.
Does this mean that we are witnessing the beginning of the end of all-boys schools?
Single vs Mixed
It’s also something many parents have a strong personal opinion about, perhaps influenced by what they experienced growing up.
Read more: Single-sex or co-educational schools: how parents can decide which option is best for their child
The short answer is that decades of research on the subject remain inconclusive.
When it comes to student academic success, the the greatest predictor 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 question of gender
When it comes to social outcomes, the debate becomes more complicated.
Some research has critical single-sex schools to segregate girls and boys, exaggerate the differences between them and pit them against each other. This is not helpful in preparing students to understand gender diversity and negotiate the world beyond school.
But research has also shown how boys occupy significantly more physical space and teaching time in schools and classrooms than girls. Boys tend to be more disruptive and need more discipline and attention.
Some research indicates boys can do better in mixed environments than girls. Educational researchers have long recognized that girls can positively influence boys’ behaviors – but at the expense of their own learning. For example, girls can be asked to sit next to disruptive boys to calm them down.
This, of course, reproduces inaccurate and tired gender stereotypes that girls are passive and diligent and boys are loud and unruly.
What did #MeToo do?
A recent critical change has also been the #MeToo movement. In the context of education, in 2020, Sydney Private School alumna Chanel Contos started a petition ask students to share their stories of sexual assault.
In response to Contos’ petition, Cranbrook’s then-Head Boy Asher Learmonth make a speechnoting: “Our school strongly presents […] too heavily […] again.” Cranbrook was among the schools Contos wanted to see consent education introduced.
Read more: ‘He had hundreds of pictures of me’: accounts of sexism from female teachers at elite schools for boys
Consideration of gender relations in general and the school petition in particular has brought much needed attention to the sexism, misogyny and abuse that can breed in hyper-masculine environments.
Boys-only schools also tend to be private schools – and this privileged environment can amplify the sense of entitlement. The fact is that not all or most male environments (whether in sports, business or politics) are good for gender equality.
A social shift
What we see here is not a change in educational theory, but a change in societal expectations. As Cranbrook Headteachers Explain their decision to go to university:
Many see transition as a necessary and inevitable step in the context of a modern society.
But when we talk about transitioning to co-education, don’t forget that private schools are also businesses and that they must attract students.
Parents may be more attracted to coeducational private schools given recent stories about the culture in some all-boys schools through the schools petition and other high-profile reports of sexist behavior. Being coeducational is not only a way to foster a “modern” environment at school, it is also a good business decision.
Including girls in boys-only schools might seem like a good solution to the problem and prevalence of sexism. However, this is not an easy solution. Unhealthy attitudes towards gender are commonplace in all schools as they are in the wider social world.
Thus, all schools should be supported creating safe and respectful learning and social environments, with adequate training and teaching resources.