Real Life

The co-education debate

Co-education could be an answer to toxic behaviour in private boys’ schools, but can the switch happen without girls paying a price?

As the boys of Newington College approached its sandstone entrance on the first day of school this year, they were greeted by an unusual sight. Roughly 25 adults with placards were milling about in the shadow of the school’s emblematic wyvern – a fork-tongued and tailed dragon that also once guarded Hogwarts’ Transfiguration Courtyard in the Harry Potter books. The parents and old boys were protesting the news that Newington would undergo a transfiguration of its own. According to the principal and the school council, the 161-year-old Sydney bastion of boys’ education would soon begin welcoming girls, with a plan that would see Newington entirely co-educational by 2033. 

Media arrived and protestor Dallas Morgan told them that the process which led to this decision was a “sham” based purely on a “woke” ideology. It was not the last time the word “woke” was heard in this debate. 

James Jordan (class of ’81) told The Weekly that, for him, the issues were a lack of consultation and a lack of choice. “Children are being enrolled when they’re very young and the parents sign up for a single-sex school, and for the history of Newington … Then that choice is taken away from them. The school council has said, ‘Oh well, you’re free to go elsewhere.’ The problem is, 85 per cent of schools in NSW are co-ed.” 

While old boys fretted, the schoolboys proceeded, unperturbed, through the gates. Were it not for the protesters (some 800 have now signed onto the Save Newington College group), the school’s decision would barely have raised an eyebrow. In the past decade, The Armidale School, Canberra Grammar, Barker College, Cranbrook and St Mary’s Cathedral College have all either begun or completed a transition from boys-only education to co-ed. In ACT and NSW private boys’ schools, the drift to coeducation has been a significant trend. Some schools have been driven by concern about projected enrolments, others by a desire to expand and offer a more diverse curriculum. 

Protesters outside Newington College, unhappy about the co-education announcement.

The most common reason, however – particularly in the last few years – has been to better prepare boys for life. 

As Newington puts it: “Our students will enter a world that will require them to walk and work alongside all genders collaboratively, respectfully and empathetically … We believe the best way to prepare them for these roles is for different genders to learn alongside each other in an everyday, unremarkable way during their childhood and adolescence.” 

The message, clearly, is that boys should be taught tolerance, respect and empathy, but some students and parents are asking: At what cost? 

Boys behaving badly 

It’s no coincidence that this attraction to the co-ed model comes at a time when private boys’ schools have hardly been covering themselves in glory. The recent spate of bad behavior began in 2019, when a woman on a tram in South Melbourne filmed students from the exclusive Catholic boys’ school, St Kevin’s, performing an obscene chant as they travelled to an interschool athletics carnival. The chant included the lyrics: “I wish that all the ladies were holes in the road, and if I was a dump truck, I’d fill them with my load.” 

St Kevin’s principal Stephen F. Russell later apologised, admitting the students’ behaviour was “offensive” and “misogynistic”. 

Then in 2020, there was the vile Shore School muck-up day list, in which Year 12 boys encouraged one another to: Parade naked outside various girls’ schools; imbibe a variety of drugs; assault strangers; defecate on public toilet seats; “get with” a minor; “perform a sex scene on the stairs of a church”; “play porn out loud on public transport”; “eat a live small animal” … and so on. The list was racist, sexist and betrayed a culture that fundamentally lacked compassion and respect. 

These weren’t isolated incidents. Twenty boys were expelled or suspended from another private boys’ school, Knox Grammar, for sharing content in a chat room that included anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic slurs, sexist comments and rape fantasies. Six boys were expelled from Waverley College for assault, humiliation and bullying. 

Clementine says that she would not send a younger sister or friend to an all-boys school that is becoming co-educational.

And more recently, following a Four Corners report, Cranbrook’s headmaster has resigned and the school in Sydney’s east faces both an internal and a federal government review amidst accusations of a “toxic culture” and a “boys’ club environment”. 

Back in 2021, after witnessing the sexual assault of a school friend, Chanel Contos posted an Instagram poll asking: “Have you or has anyone close to you experienced sexual assault from someone who went to an all-boys school? Yes or no?” Over the next 24 hours, 200 people responded “yes”. It was then that Chanel realised the “world-class education” being delivered at these private boys’ schools did not include respect for women or the meaning of consent. 

Clementine Gleeson-Cook was in Year 12 at SCEGGS (the Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School), just over the hill from Cranbrook, when Chanel disseminated her survey. 

“When the results of her survey came out, no one in my group at school was surprised at all,” Clementine tells The Weekly. “I know a lot of boys from those schools who have in some way violated a girl I know. 

“I think with social media and especially with porn culture these days – when boys are consuming so much porn – and then the only time they see girls is at a party on the weekend, it creates this image of girls as just sexual objects.” 

Clementine, who is studying a double degree in pure maths and philosophy, and is currently on a university exchange in Denmark, says she learnt to speak up in her all-girls’ school. And she doesn’t hold back now. 

“Boys’ schools are such a breeding ground for the horrible boys’-club culture, which is already a big cultural problem in Australia – even in co-ed schools. But in all-boys’ schools it goes unchecked. No one holds anyone accountable.” 

Chanel conducted a survey with surprising results.

Would she send a younger sister or friend into one of these private boys’ schools that are shifting to co-ed? “No way. Absolutely zero chance,” she says. “I honestly think the only way to turn a boys’ school co-ed would be to just scrap it and start again. Because I don’t think there’s any positive way to just chuck girls into the mix. I don’t think it’s safe for them. 

“The way that we, at my school, had to deal with boys on a Saturday night, if I had to face that every single day of the week in the classroom, I couldn’t take that … I would be terrified of school every day.

“I’m all for getting rid of boys’ institutions, but I don’t think throwing girls into the mix is a solution because it’s like throwing them to the wolves. Girls are not a learning tool. These schools cannot use girls as a trial-and-error experiment in how to exist in a world with women.” 

A co-ed world 

Educator and author Daisy Turnbull has been tasked with accomplishing what Clementine deems impossible – transforming Cranbrook into a safe and welcoming environment for girls in less than two years. The school has committed to its first intake of girls in Years Seven and 11 in 2026, and by 2029 it will be fully co-educational. Daisy, the school’s Director of Co-education, is so certain the plan will work that she has enrolled her own daughter and son. 

“People are starting to realise that the world is co-educational,” she explains, “so why are we segregating young people from age 12 to 18? People are questioning this idea that you have girls educated at girls’ schools and boys educated at boys’ schools, and then they get to university and that’s the first time they interact with each other. I think it’s better to have these experiences when they’re teenagers and learn how to work together as colleagues and friends and peers.” 

Daisy has been working with her colleagues to tweak the curriculum, add more books by women to reading lists, expand sport and co-curricular offerings. And there’s a new uniform which is non-gender specific. 

Daisy insists that the school has also been addressing accusations of a toxic culture. It has increased consent training and begun conversations about relationships and respect with younger students. 

“We work with organisations like Consent Labs from Year Seven,” she says. “Katrina Marson [criminal lawyer, author and member of the Australian government’s Respectful Relationships Education Expert Working Group] comes to speak with them. In Year 10 we have our students and the Year 10 students from a neighbouring girls’ school learning about this stuff together. I think, with consent, the boys might be getting one message and the girls getting another one … Having the same language is important.” 

The Armidale School has successfully transitioned to co-education.

Catharine Lumby is an author and academic who has advised organisations, including schools and sporting clubs, on how to eliminate sexual harassment and become more gender inclusive. She sent both her kids to Cranbrook in high school, and her advice to boys’ schools that are preparing for the arrival of girls is to support the good guys. 

“My oldest son came home from school in tears one day,” she remembers, “because some of the boys were showing around a video of a girl, half-naked, who was passed out at a party. He reported it but it wasn’t an easy thing to do because teenagers want to fit in. 

“So one of the things I think you have to do when you’re preparing a school to go co-ed is enlist the ethical bystanders – the people who feel like my son did – and give them the tools to speak up and stand up. Sometimes the bad behaviour is concentrated amongst a noisy minority. So it’s about empowering the majority of young men to call it out.” 

Five hundred kilometres north of Cranbrook, The Armidale School (TAS) opened its gates to girls eight years ago to barely a whimper of protest. Then-headmaster Murray Guest had been on sabbatical in the UK, where he’d noticed “an almost unstoppable wave” towards co-education. 

Back home in Armidale the change was proposed and the response was overwhelmingly positive. 

“We had old boys who said, ‘I’d love to be able to send my daughters to the school I went to and to give them the opportunities I had’,” says Sebastian Hempel, who has been chair of the TAS board since before the transition. “They really embraced it. And for boarding families where there are boys and girls, they love the ability to live in Moree or Gunnedah and drive a few hours to TAS to watch both kids play sport on the weekend.” 

Sebastian’s own daughter, Emily, signed up when he left a prospectus for senior electives on the kitchen table. The school expanded its subjects to offer more choice to both boys and girls. Now, Sebastian says, they have solid cohorts of girls choosing metalwork and boys choosing textiles. 

Cadets has also proved popular. He remembers the first year a girls’ platoon took on the formidable Mount Lofty challenge. 

Daisy Turnbull, Director of Co-education.
Daisy is Cranbrook’s Director of Co-education.

“The boys said, ‘You girls won’t be able to make it up there’. But the girls made it to the summit and said, ‘What were those boys complaining about?’ There’s a lovely photo of them at the top, and my daughter was among them. The girls embraced that stuff.” 

Could it really have been as relentlessly comradely as all that? Surely there were disgruntled boys. 

“It wasn’t without its teething problems,” Sebastian admits. “In the first few years, particularly in the senior years, there were some boys who, you know, weren’t taking it as well as others. But for every one that was struggling with it there was another one saying, ‘hey, that’s my younger sister’ or ‘that’s my cousin’ or ‘that’s my best

mate’s older sister’ … And within a few years, you have a cohort that doesn’t remember it any differently.” 

Hattie Oates who, in 2016, was the first and only Year Seven female boarder, backs Sebastian up. 

“I loved it,” says the 21-year-old who now lives and works as a singersongwriter in Sydney. “I was just taking most things in my stride. I had an older brother there and I didn’t mind the company of boys. I shared a room with a Year 10 girl who had to get up early and do swimming, so she wasn’t in the normal Year 10 dorm. I guess I grew up quickly, you know, being with the older girls. 

“There were also two day girls my own age, and we’re still great friends. We did the whole six years together, so we have a special friendship. We had each other’s back quite heavily because we were the only girls, but it also bred quite a carefree relationship with the boys. By the end of Year 12 we had brotherly kind of mates and guys who would just have your back till the end. For all that stuff, I think it was great.” 

Today TAS has almost reached girl/boy parity and, while no school is perfect, it seems to have successfully transitioned to a well-rounded co-ed school, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary this year. 

Are girls stronger together? 

Legend – and a significant number of academic studies – have it that girls thrive socially, emotionally and academically in single-sex schools, whereas boys do better in co-ed. There is an immense amount of circumstantial evidence to back this up, and the fact that state, church and independent girls’ schools are booming would surely bear that out. 

Clementine went to a co-ed primary school – the International Grammar School at Ultimo – that she loved. But even so, she says, she didn’t hit her straps until she landed at SCEGGS in high school. She remembers being selected for enrichment maths in first grade and being the only girl in the room – “and these six-year-old boys mansplaining maths problems to me. Even though I was only six years old, I could really feel a separation in that class.” 

Clementine remembers feeling embarrassed to speak up, worried she might be laughed at if she got something wrong. She was aware that the boys were “a bit more dominating in the classroom”. 

On Clementine’s first day at SCEGGS, she instantly felt seen and heard. 

“I was really able to thrive,” she says. “In a way, a girls’ school is like a temporary shield from sexism. Of course, you know, that’s not how the world is. The world isn’t all girls. It was like living in Barbieland for six years, but it was also really important for me – and I know for a lot of other girls – to have those six years to actually come into your own without your education or your sense of self being impeded by boys. It helped us to become strong, independent women in our own right, so then we were ready to take on the world. 

A co-education campus.

“I don’t think I would be where I am today – like I don’t think I would be doing maths as a girl, I don’t think I would have done as well in school, I don’t think I would feel so empowered – if I hadn’t gone to a girls’ school.” 

Professor Helen Proctor from the University of Sydney has waded through all manner of studies on the co-education debate and maintains that the theory boys do better in co-ed schools is no more than “folklore”. Is there any evidence that girls learn better at girls’ schools? 

“Not really,” she says. “There is evidence, but it’s always about very specific settings, and it’s hard to control for other factors. In Australia, if you look at girls’ schools, they tend to skew towards being either academically selective or schools with high fees.” 

So to what extent are the statistics influenced by a school’s wealth or its parents’ social class or professional background? It’s impossible to know. Professor Proctor claims that most studies don’t disentangle those threads. 

And anyway she believes coeducation is a distraction from the more crucial issue: What the kids are learning and the environment the school creates. 

“Schools are such big, complex places with such a variety of people in them that pitting one system against the other is, in a way, asking the wrong question. 

“We’re so much more conscious of the diversity of kids going through school now. The real question to ask is how can a co-ed school or a girls’ school or a boys’ school be made welcoming for all the kids who enrol there. Respect for diversity – I feel like that’s a really fundamental value that can help everyone feel safe and secure in schools. And once you feel safe and secure, you learn better.” 

Professor Proctor believes that the decisions we make about schooling don’t just affect children, they affect the society that those children will go on to create. 

Recently, a group of 22 former Cranbrook prefects wrote to the school to express their views on co-education. 

“The current single-sex independent school structures in Sydney create one-dimensional interactions between the genders … some of the attitudes and norms of behaviour that develop in these communities are, rightly, no longer acceptable in broader Australian society,” the letter said. “This contributes to adverse outcomes for these young people; most importantly, for the young women directly affected by behaviour that should not be tolerated, but also for the young men who find themselves inadequately equipped for adult life.” 

Clementine agrees with their sentiment, but wonders about the cost. 

“I think it’s really important for boys to go to a co-ed school to learn how to exist in a world with girls,” she says. “But at the same time, I think it’s good for girls to learn how to actually be independent from boys. And obviously you can’t have both of those at the same time … I guess my overarching opinion is that I think girls’ schools are great, but I wish boys’ culture allowed for girls to also thrive at a co-ed school.” 

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