by Victoria Woodhead, Marketing and Communications Specialist

Last week, Elmwood’s Head of School, Mr James Whitehouse, travelled to Vancouver, BC, to participate in the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools’ (CAIS) Heads and Chairs Conference. Joined by Heads of School from across the country, Mr. Whitehouse heard from education and industry leaders on the impacts that the environment can have on education. One of the discussions that Mr Whitehouse had the chance to attend was one hosted by Megan Murphy, the Global Executive Director of the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools (ICGS). Ms. Murphy presented research from their organization that looked into the differences in educational environments and their impacts on girls’ education in both girls’ schools and co-educational institutions. This research, undertaken in collaboration with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), analyzed both groups by comparing the groups’ responses to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The results of this research displayed a significant gap in skills and opinions between the students at girls’ schools and those at co-ed schools. 

The PISA test is used worldwide to assess student achievement against several different academic and social measures, its purpose being to create a benchmark for comparing the value and expertise of institutions worldwide. The test measures the reading, mathematics, and science skills of 15-year-old students and asks them several questions about their overall school environment and experience. Over 60,000 students participated in this programme, with 75% hailing from co-educational institutions and 23% from all-girls environments. Findings from the responses of girls’ school students highlight the benefits gained by learning in an all-girls environment.

The first measure considered was that of teacher competency. Students at girls’ schools described their teachers as more competent, engaging, and respectful, with the research showing that “students noted teacher engagement during class indicated a better class environment and more teacher attention being paid to individual students.” Students at girls’ schools cited their teacher's clarity, enthusiasm, and engagement as the most effective ways to create a healthy learning space. More often than their co-ed counterparts, female students in co-ed schools noted that their teachers were enthusiastic, encouraging and motivating. 

The second measure was students’ reading competencies. Sixty-seven percent of girls’ school students indicated they enjoyed reading– a higher rate than female students at co-educational schools. Additionally, more than three-quarters of girls’ school students reported that they enjoyed reading for leisure and with greater frequency than their co-ed peers. Girls’ school students also indicated higher digital literacy skills, which, coupled with higher reading competencies, will assist them in all future endeavours.

Students at girls’ schools also reported that they felt their classroom environments were positive spaces more often than students at co-educational schools.  Researchers noted far fewer disruptions in single-sex classrooms than reported in co-ed environments. Students at girls’ schools also felt their classroom environments created a space where a student’s effort seems to directly correlate with the opportunities afforded to them.

Positive risk-taking and persistence were arguably where the most significant differences were observed. In girls’ schools, students indicated a more positive relationship with “competition,” describing it more often as “enjoyable, important, and motivating.” They also reported that they enjoyed challenging themselves and improving on past performance, indicating that they would rather work to master a difficult task than abandon it for something new. Students at all-girls institutions reported being less worried about the possibility of failure, indicating to researchers that they were more likely to engage in positive risk-taking. Students at girls’ schools reported greater self-confidence and “noted feeling a sense of accomplishment, identifying that when they are in a difficult situation, they can usually find a way out of it and that they can handle many things at a time.” 

When asked about their futures, students at girls’ schools indicated that they have high aspirations for themselves, their education, and their careers. A notable majority of students from girls’ schools reported to researchers that they had “strong learning goals,” whereas female students at co-educational schools reported having defined aspirations or learning goals less frequently. Seventy-five percent of girls’ school students also stated that they have developed a sense of purpose or meaning with regard to their education and a clear sense of what is meaningful in their lives. 

On the topic of mental health and well-being, students at girls’ schools indicated better social well-being than co-ed students. Girls’ school students felt that they made friends easily and that other students liked them. They were also less likely to indicate feeling like an outsider, stating that they didn’t often feel awkward or lonely in the school environment. Researchers noted that, overall, students at girls’ schools reported significantly fewer incidents of bullying and teasing than students at co-ed schools. 

Generally, the research indicates that girls’ schools and the positive environment they create lead to ideal conditions for student well-being - academically, socially, and emotionally– allowing them to thrive in all facets of education and encouraging them to strive for success beyond high school.   

The full Executive Summary can be found here.