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Single-sex schools are disappearing, but they may offer the key to gender equality

Related Story: 'Warped views about women': The shortcomings of single-sex schools

The debate over single-sex versus co-ed schools has raged for decades in Australia, but it could soon be a moot point.

While experts still discuss which is better for academic outcomes, recent research has found single-sex schools are dwindling and could be gone entirely in the non-government sector by 2035.

In the shadow of this growing void, a more recent discussion about schools and gender equality has emerged.

Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia executive officer Loren Bridge and Flinders University lecturer Samantha Schulz both believe schools play a part in preparing women in particular to be future leaders.

But when it comes to whether single-sex or co-ed schools are better placed to do this, their views are markedly split.

Ms Bridge presents the case for single-sex schools and said spending time last week with 170 girls from girls' schools around the world showed her she was on the right path.

"In their words, what they like about single-sex education is the confidence that it gives them," she said.

"They feel more empowered in the classroom, more able to express themselves, less self-conscious, willing to put their hands up for leadership positions.

"It's those sorts of things that girls' schools can give to girls."

Ms Bridge added that many teachers also found single-sex schools a better environment to work in.

"They can focus specifically on the needs of the girls in their class without the distraction of boys," she said.

However, Dr Schulz said it was the very nature of segregation that was the problem.

"By virtue of being single-sex schools, they're also reinforcing a gender binary, so the stereotypes that are ultimately disempowering," she said.

"If we want schooling to lead to gender equity more broadly, then we need to think about the ways in which schools can lead to political and social empowerment for girls.

"Single-sex schools on their own, whilst they can be empowering in some regards, can also be oppressive and they're unlikely to lead to gender equity more broadly."

There has been a recent trend of single-sex schools converting to co-ed in Australia.

But there are still currently more single-sex schools for girls than boys, and they are more common in the private sector.

The first girls to attend Barker College

Ms Bridge said if girls could only be what they could see, then these schools offered a perfect space to learn.

"Every leadership position in a girls' school is held by a girl, so girls are getting that experience in developing leadership skills," she said.

In the opposing camp, Dr Schulz agreed there needed to be change, but said girls and women couldn't achieve that alone.

"That requires a thorough education for all young people that engages them with critical discussions about gender, its social construction and how it shapes all of our lives," she said.

"Boys and men have a responsibility to be engaging in those discussions as well.

"We have to work together in order to create these broader outcomes and schools are the space that we can start this shift."

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