Leni Mayo

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Girls vs Boys in Education

For the last five years, I’ve been serving as the webmaster of Richmond High School Choices - a group of parents working to improve public education in the melbourne suburb in which I live. I’m moving on from the group, leaving it in the good hands of Tom Rowan, Virginia Dods, Justin Naylor and others. I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned in the last five years.

Richmond High School Choices

In 2007 I attended a public meeting at a local school to learn about what was coming down the road for me as a parent of two pre-school boys. What I heard was unsettling.

In Australia, public schools are zoned - a child is guaranteed access to the nearest local school (and no other). In Richmond, VIC, there’s a twist.

Girls and boys are streamed by the government into different public schools. Girls are zoned for Melbourne Girls College - one of the top 10 schools in the state of Victoria. Boys are zoned for Collingwood College - an institution which emphasises its alternatives to mainstream education with Steiner and Reggio Emilia options.

Richmond boys and girls transition into high school very differently. In 2009, of Richmond students completing year 6:

  • 80% of girls attend Melbourne Girls College and 92% remain in the public education system
  • 6.5% of boys attend Collingwood College and 61% remain in the public education system

And in 2009, of students completing year 12:

  • 93% of Melbourne Girls College students applied to university
  • 64% of Collingwood College students applied to university

I know a number of parents who are having great experiences with Collingwood College, and I have no intention of being negative about the school or about the choices any parent makes. But these are the numbers.

I also heard stories of parents of boys checking their letterbox week after week, anxiously waiting to find out which school their son would attend. They had applied to public schools in surrounding areas and would sometimes learn the result only a few days before commencement.

It’s been this way in Richmond since 1994, when Melbourne Girls College was opened on the site of the former (co-educational) Richmond High School, closed by the Kennett Government in 1992.

Public co-ed schools have plenty of boys

Victoria has eight publicly funded single-sex schools for girls, and one for boys (Melbourne High School).

Percentage of girls and boys attending single-sex schools
boys 1.3%
girls 7.4%

That’s out of just over 200,000 children in Victorian public high schools:

total students in public high schools   204,413
boys 104,420
girls 99,993

The net result of these two sets of numbers is a significant skew in the gender balance of public co-educational schools. In 2009, roughly 10,000 (or 10%) more boys than girls attended co-educational public schools.

Co-ed schools that want to balance their numbers of boys and girls have limited options, given that they are all drawing from a population containing more boys. If I was a principal of a co-ed school, I’m not sure what I would do. I might:

  • feature girls more prominantly than boys in school promotional material; and
  • to the extent that discretion allows, prefer to admit girls over boys.
Both these effects are consistent with my personal obvservation:
  • parents seem to have more trouble finding schools for their boys vs their girls.
  • ads for schools in the newspaper and other media feature girls more often than boys
In short, schools already have plenty of boys.

Single sex schools

In case you’re wondering whether:

girls do better in single sex schools and boys are ‘brought on’ by the more studious girls in a co-educational environment.
it’s not true. Or at least, that view is highly controversial. The most recent Australian study I could find showed the reverse, finding that:
single-sex schooling may mitigate male disadvantages in educational achievement
A 2009 oecd pisa report found that for both boys and girls:
there was a significant difference in Australia between single-sex schools and mixed-sex schools after accounting for students’ socio-economic background, but this disappeared after taking schools’ socio-economic background into account as well.

What’s next for Richmond?

In 2007 through 2010, Richmond High School Choices with the help of local member of parliament Richard Wynne persuaded the education department to expand the options available to families in the area:

Families living in Richmond and for whom Collingwood College is their neighbourhood school also have the option of sending their child to Fitzroy High School or Princes Hill Secondary College. Girls may also attend Melbourne Girls College.
These additional options for Richmond families are temporary and may be withdrawn at short notice.

In terms of a sustainable solution for Richmond families, the government faces some difficult choices:

  • Collingwood College goes mainstream
    Half of Collingwood College’s potential student body (ie. girls) attends Melbourne Girls College. Specialisation helps Collingwood College attract students from outside its zone.
  • Melbourne Girls College becomes 100% selective and closes to local girls
    This might help Collingwood College’s long-term sustainability but is unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by parents of local girls.
  • Melbourne Girls College becomes Richmond High School
    As one of the top-10 schools in the state, Melbourne Girls College appears to be functioning well as a single-sex girls school. Disrupting that arrangement may negatively impact non-local girls as well as requiring liason with the local community in light of the myth that single-sex education favours girls over boys.
  • Establish a single-sex boys school in the area to counter-balance Melbourne Girls College
    The only single-sex high school for boys in Victoria (Melbourne High School) is nearby.
  • Establish a co-ed school in the area
    An additional co-ed school in the area would face similar challenges to Collingwood College.

Successive governments have been unable to find a permanent solution. With increasing numbers of school-age children forecast to live in the area it seems unlikely that the issue will simply go away.

The most likely solution

Melbourne Girls College reverting to it’s historical mission - a co-educational school serving Richmond families has the following advantages:

  • it’s cheap, and
  • some of the “out of richmond” girls currently fed into Melbourne Girls College would instead attend their local public school, moving the gender balance in the public school system - currently heavily skewed towards boys - in the direction of 50-50.

Who’s most affected?

A politician once said in private conversation that the concerns of local families are simply middle and high-income parents wanting more than their fair share.

I don’t share that view. That public education in Richmond presents grossly differing pathways to boys and girls does raise questions around equity.

Moreover, the City of Yarra is a highly diverse local government area, with:

  • a large population of high socio-economic status families
  • a large migrant population (esp Vietnamese and Greek) and
  • 10% of residents living in public housing

Since socio-economic status is the strongest predictor of academic success (followed by gender), it seems likely that the cohort most negatively impacted by the current arrangements are poor boys.

Professor Richard Teese provides some historical context:

the inner suburbs were never properly equipped with local high schools because it was considered in the 1950s that the working classes only needed tech or girls schools.

There was a really appalling history of social neglect, based on the class perception that manual workers children didn’t need university preparatory schools.

What’s next for gender equity in education?

Girls begin to outscore boys early in primary school and the gap widens through secondary school. Of every 100 university entrants, 56 are female, 44 male.

In light of the huge and growing gap in education outcomes between boys and girls, one wonders what policy objectives the government is pursuing when it:

  • focuses resources on the education of girls (and not boys),
  • creates additonal educational options for girls vs boys; and
  • skews it’s co-educational school population towards boys

Equity in education is a complex issue, with economic, political, historical, cultural, regional and personal dimensions. The Gonski report defines equity as:

as ensuring that differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or possessions
The Gonski report makes no reference to gender. To the extent that Australian society does look at equity through the lens of gender, it would be unhealthy for that debate to be couched in terms of girls vs boys. But the usage in this piece is intentional, partly by way of experiment, and partly to contrast the absence of plain language in the literature, which I worry simply obfuscates what on one level is a reasonably straightforward state of affairs. Namely:
  • girls are doing better than boys.
  • the gap is widening
  • the public education system is playing a part in the widening gap

What the future holds is anyone’s guess but parents may do well to understand the big picture context influencing their options.