Like a Fish to Water

Peter Clague

Peter Clague, St Leonard’s College Principal

Write about coeducation, they said.

I couldn’t help thinking of that hackneyed joke about the swimmer on the shore, calling out to ask a fish “How’s the water?” and the fish replying, “What is water?” Some things are so obvious, we are oblivious to their very existence.

As I toured St Leonard’s College for the first time in August, coeducation seemed so fundamental to the school’s ebb and flow, it was invisible. Ultimately, I want young people to be like that fish, not even consciously comprehending the water in which they swim. I want them to find respectful, easy relationships with all other children so normal that they don’t even consider there might be any other alternative. To believe innately that all people possess equal possibility and potential. If the pandemic taught us anything, surely it was that? The COVID virus did not discriminate; no gender, race, religion, or political persuasion was spared. Equally, it was the cooperation of diverse people the world over that ensured human resilience triumphed in the end. You would hope that not only their intelligence, but also their ability to collaborate, was a function of their early education.

Our young people will leave us to enter universities, join the workforce, and ultimately contribute to societies that will – rightly – expect them to know how to interact easily and appropriately with others, including those of a different gender. From the feminist revolution of the Seventies to the #MeToo movement of recent times, the impetus for gender equality and mutual respect is at last reaching all corners of society. I’m not saying we are there yet; however, schools have been an engine of that momentum, hence my belief in coeducation.

The relative academic merits of coeducation vs single-sex teaching is one of the most heavily researched topics in Western education. The problem is often that initial bias in the sample can skew the results.  For instance, some studies suggesting girls do better in single-sex schools don’t account for the fact that a disproportionate number of those pupils may be predetermined to succeed academically, wherever they are taught. Often, parents who send their daughters to girls’ schools do so because they already place a higher premium on academic attainment than other families. Hence, the population of the school may be predestined to perform well. That does not mean, however, that those girls would not have performed equally well in any other educational setting.

Another consideration of an exclusively single-sex environment is that it can inadvertently end up perpetuating the very gender stereotypes it intends to counter. Non-traditional subject options can be harder to sustain outside of a coeducational setting. Think of Food Science for boys, or Computer Coding for girls. Yet in all the subjects they offer, coeducational schools like St Leonard’s can (and do) regularly test for gender bias in academic outcomes, allowing teachers to immediately address any imbalance.

Ultimately though, it is not academic achievements that underpin my belief in coeducation. It may seem like sacrilege, coming from a professional educator, but I believe that the sum of a child’s schooling is far greater than their final ATAR. Learning how to be comfortable in your own skin, and how to respect others doing the same, seems of equal importance to me. And that requires exposure from an early age to people whose perspectives and personalities differ from your own. That may be challenging at times, but so are most of the important lessons we learn in life.

For example, one argument often touted for sending girls to single-sex schools is the opportunity to let them flourish without distraction, away from the perceived dominating influence of boys in a classroom. However, those same boys will still be in attendance at the first university lecture. Surely it is better to teach girls how to “lean in” (and boys how to dial it down) before either party becomes too set in their ways?

Even if different genders do occasionally jar as they learn to live alongside one another, there is plenty of research to show that sexism and stereotyping occurs just as frequently in single-sex environments (male or female) as in mixed settings. I would argue it is much easier to detect, debunk, and dispel those behaviours in a coeducational school. Just as racism tends to diminish in societies that become more multicultural, so too does it get harder for students to foster inappropriate attitudes about genders different to their own when living and working alongside each other.

Surely the same is true of all human differences? Diverse school communities that include a blend of sex and sexuality, race and religion, culture and creed, bodies and brains, aren’t actually virtue-signalling bastions of the woke. They are just, well… normal.

A reflection of the society they serve. Like water to a fish. And where better for any child to learn to swim, than St Leonard’s?

The full version of this article was first published in Network Magazine by St Leonard’s College, September 2022.

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Principal – Mr Peter Clague   Providing Exemplary Education for Over 100 Years Established in 1914, St Leonard’s College is Bayside’s […]

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