Published on 15 May 2024

The economics and emotions as single-sex schools become mixed

The swirling debate over whether single-sex or mixed schools are better for boys and girls can be put to bed.

Education in Singapore is undergoing foundational changes in terms of gender mix. 

The primary section of the all-boys Maris Stella High School will become co-educational after it moves to a holding site in 2027 as part of campus rebuilding plans. This follows the announcement of Anglo-Chinese School (Primary), or ACS(P), similarly turning co-educational when it relocates to Tengah in 2030.

Yet the story is less the sudden decline of single-sex schools, and more the inexorable trend towards co-educational schooling in Singapore over the last 60 years amid population trends and urban development.

Since the mid-1960s, no new single-sex school has been established in Singapore.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) Government pushed for the provision of universal education with equal opportunities for boys and girls when it came into power in 1959. Its agenda focused more on the economic imperatives of preparing a workforce, and less on differentiating the education of boys and girls. 

From the 1980s, a steady stream of primary and secondary single-sex schools have either closed down completely (like the secondary section of Marymount Convent), merged with co-educational schools (like Haig Boys’ School) or turned co-educational. 

This third category is the largest and includes Nan Hwa Girls’ School, Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School, De La Salle School and St Anthony’s Boys’ School.

The decision to turn co-educational for schools in this category was often taken together with redevelopment plans and moving to new premises in housing estates, suggesting financial imperatives behind the moves.

Shifts in the Singapore education system over the years

Today, the schooling landscape is overwhelmingly co-educational.

Pre-schools, along with pre-university institutions, polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education and the universities, are all co-educational. 

The primary and secondary levels are the last to catch up.

There are nine boys’ schools (4.9 per cent), 15 girls’ schools (8.2 per cent) and 158 mixed-sex schools (86.8 per cent) at the primary level, while at the secondary level, there are 12 boys’ schools (8.1 per cent), 15 girls’ schools (10.1 per cent) and 121 co-educational schools (81.8 per cent). Most single-sex schools are religiously affiliated.

Before the advent of co-educational junior colleges in the late 1960s to mid-1970s, and mixed-sex centralised institutes in the 1980s, pre-university education was provided through a mix of single-sex schooling (usually extensions of all-girls schools such as Tanjong Katong Girls’ School) and co-educational schooling (with all-boys schools at the secondary level, such as Raffles Institution, accepting female students at the pre-university level).

In a way, the single-sex segments of the education system have grown, then shrunk, as their sponsoring objectives shifted amid changing societal needs. 

Prior to the establishment of mass schooling in Singapore in the 1960s, single-sex schooling was very much the norm.

Many schools formed between the 19th century and first half of the 20th century were set up by missionary bodies, charitable bodies and various community leaders. 

Historian Karen Teoh’s book, Schooling Diaspora, documents many English-language girls’ schools evolving from rescue centres for orphans, the poor or “fallen women”, into sites for educating the daughters of middle- and upper-class families, at a time when educational opportunities, especially for girls, remained limited. 

Meanwhile, Chinese-medium girls’ schools served as sites for modernisation, while at the same time preserving Chinese cultural identity. Teoh highlights that the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School was established in a bid to ensure that Nonyas would “shed the negative attributes of traditional femininity, such as ignorance and superstition”, while maintaining the “positive features of their cultural heritage, such as moral purity and housewifely competence”.

The demographic realities

The steady conversion of single-sex primary and secondary schools into co-educational ones makes sense when viewed against two major contemporary demographic realities. 

First, changes in urban density with the construction of new but smaller housing estates.

Schools that relocate to estates like Tengah, with 42,000 homes, must serve the needs of residents by becoming mixed-sex.

In the case of primary schools, another consideration in widening accessibility is the priority accorded to children with older siblings enrolled in a school and those who live nearby.

Second, schools face the prospect of dwindling enrolments as Singapore’s total fertility rate continues to plummet, with a historic low of 0.97 recorded in 2023. Education Minister Chan Chun Sing outlined this stark reality in Parliament in 2023.

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said MOE takes a customised approach as the circumstances differ for each case.

Is education preparing our children adequately?

The topic of single-sex schooling remains controversial around the world, despite more schools marching towards co-educational systems. While mixed-sex schools predominate in most countries, a handful provide single-sex education as the norm due largely to dominant social or religious mores.

There are significant barriers to girls’ participation in schooling in countries such as Afghanistan, whose government has banned girls from receiving an education beyond the age of 12. A 2023 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report estimated that 122 million girls were still out of school around the world.

Women also remained underrepresented in the higher education fields of mathematics, physical science and computing, according to the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a worldwide survey of 15-year-old students’ achievements in reading, mathematics and science. Girls reported less confidence than boys in their ability to solve mathematics or science problems.

A Nanyang Technological University study in 2022 and a PAP paper in 2021 noted the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) careers. Both reports called for more mentors and female role models to tackle this issue.

Male education faces a different set of challenges.

The same 2012 Pisa survey highlighted that boys trailed girls in reading proficiency.

Compared with girls, boys are also at greater risk of repeating grades and failing to progress and complete their education, a 2022 Unesco report pointed out. They are underrepresented in tertiary enrolment.

The underachieving male rears its head here in Singapore too. About 64.7 per cent of females aged 25 to 34 had a university qualification compared with 54.9 per cent of their male counterparts in 2023. 

The bottom line? Education researchers worry education is failing to prepare both genders adequately.

Single-sex schools and toxic masculinity 

This debate over whether education sufficiently prepares men and women for the future of work intersects with the discourse over whether girls and boys are better schooled separately, given gendered differences in learning and development that single-sex schools can better cater to.

There has been a revival of all-boys middle schools in the United States, where schools claim that their curriculum is better tailored to boys’ developmental needs. 

On the other hand, some advocates of co-educational schooling claim that all-boys schools are potential breeding grounds for toxic masculinity and misogynistic attitudes and that co-educational schools can temper such inclinations instead of leaving them unchecked.

Such debate surfaces periodically, as in the case of the Melbourne boys’ school St Kevin’s College in 2019, when some students were videoed chanting sexist slogans on a tram.

A counterargument asserts that girls thrive better in an all-girls environment safe from these extremes in male behaviour, and simultaneously gain more confidence in exploring educational and career opportunities stereotypically associated with being more suitable for men – like Stem.

However, a recent case involving a group of 16-year-old and 17-year-old male students in Yarra Valley Grammar, a co-educational school in the Melbourne suburbs, using sexist language to rate female students in terms of appearance, suggests such attitudes are not the exclusive preserve of all-boys schools.

It is likely that both single-sex and co-educational schools are at risk of perpetuating gender stereotypes and biases, especially if teachers are not aware of how their own biases may affect their classroom behaviour and if concerted efforts are not made to stamp out problematic actions. 

It is interesting that no local civil society groups or reports on women in Stem published in recent memory have specifically singled out girls’ schools as a potentially powerful source of changing gender stereotypes about Stem careers.

In the same vein, the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s 2022 White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development talks in broad terms about all schools combating stereotypes, especially those that affect women’s familial roles and career choices.

School choices are personal, even emotional

Singapore has moved beyond the days of gender-biased policies that posed obstacles to females’ educational advancement, such as the now-defunct one-third quota on female students admitted to the medical faculty of the National University of Singapore. 

In an era where diversity and inclusivity are high on many national policy agendas, co-education appears the obvious choice. Advocates stress that schools are socialising institutions that prepare boys and girls for the adult world. 

Unfortunately, there is no local research that examines the effects of co-educational and single-sex schools on boys’ and girls’ development.

The international research also continues to produce equivocal results. The University of South Australia’s Associate Professor Judith Gill claims that there is a lack of definitive research that shows either of the school structures is more effective.

These reasons probably undergird the Education Minister’s cautious remarks that the Ministry of Education does not have plans to proactively convert single-sex schools into mixed ones. 

Mr Chan’s words are a reminder that schools do more than educate students. They also evoke powerful emotional memories in both students and alumni, as exemplified by the depth of emotion felt by some ACS(P) alumni when the announcement was made of the school’s impending conversion to co-educational status.

With no firm evidence in favour of either mode of schooling, it is probably fair to say that there is more to a school’s effectiveness, culture and ethos than just the single-sex or co-educational label.

In addition, there is no way of proving conclusively which kind of school an individual student will thrive better in – where much depends on his or her unique learning styles, interests and aptitudes – thus putting an end to the controversies that continue to swirl. 

As the Primary 1 registration exercise opens in mid-2024, that’s a point parents ought to bear in mind.

  • Jason Tan is associate professor of policy, curriculum and leadership at the National Institute of Education.