Why a single-sex education is best for boys

Nelson College  is an 'oasis of single sex calm'.
Nelson College is an 'oasis of single sex calm'. Photo credit: Supplied

Nelson College Headmaster Gary O'Shea dons his black gown and walks on stage to address a sea of students. 1,100 curious faces stare back at him, from fresh-faced new entrants to seniors sprouting stubble. He starts to speak about strength, love, honour and mateship - what it means to be a man.  

"There is this oasis of single sex calm," he says. "Those personal conversations you can have support them at a really fragile time in their lives. I see strength in that."

Fewer than 2.5 percent of New Zealand’s schools are boys' only. But Mr O'Shea believes their students have a significant advantage. A newly-released report, commissioned by the Association of Boys' Schools of New Zealand, backs him up.

The study, by Victoria University's senior education lecturer Dr Michael Johnston, compared the performance of young men in Years 11-13 at single sex schools with those at co-educational schools. Examining results from 2013-2015, he found students at boys' schools were higher achievers, regardless of the school's decile rating or the students' ethnicity. Maori students at low decile schools performed significantly better in single sex education.

  • In 2015 the median percentage of male school leavers attaining University Entrance was 48% in boys’ schools, versus 28% in co-ed
  • In low decile (1-4) boys’ schools 32% gained UE, versus 15% in co-ed
  • For Maori in low decile schools, 22.7% gained UE, versus 7.6% in co-ed

Gary O'Shea has been Nelson College's Headmaster for over 12 years, but before that he taught at eight co-ed schools. He believes between the ages of 12 and 15, girls and boys learn differently. Girls are generally more mature and articulate, meaning boys can be too fearful of giving a wrong answer to contribute in class.

"Boys will often put each other down, and in particular if girls are around. The posturing, the 'I can be the bad kid, the clown in the classroom' to try to impress, all of those immature behaviours of boys are reduced in a single sex school. The classroom is calmer, it's more focussed."

The College's Head Boy, Tom Peterson, agrees that a co-ed environment can be tough for younger boys to handle.

"I think it creates more distractions from a social point of view. You'll be more inclined to talk about who's dating who, who's hanging out with who, who's doing what in the weekend. And so that can take away from your focus."  

O'Shea says prospective parents can be concerned that an environment where girls are excluded doesn't reflect the real world.

"I think that was quite valid in the '50s and '60s. But I think there's so much social contact between boys and girls now. I think the fact that this is calmer, and away from some of that social contact with girlfriends, is actually quite a settling influence."  

He points out that 47% of teachers are female, and senior students have more contact with Nelson Girls' College. The schools share language and drama classes, and have dances and balls.

Tom met his girlfriend on a joint school ski trip. "As guys get older they become more social, irrelevant of whether girls are in their school or not," he says.  

He plans to study engineering next year, and thinks he'll be "just fine" when girls are added to the lecture theatre.

"The confidence you get out of the school in terms of grades and your learning means I feel I'll be quite comfortable switching over into that slightly different environment next year."

O'Shea says by the time they are seniors, boys and girls are actually very similar learners. So why does the study show senior boys doing better in single sex education?

"One advantage boys' schools have is a huge sense of belonging. It's almost a tribal thing. It's so much easier to get a whole school culture that's positive and reinforcing, and that tends to flow into the classroom."

He knows boys' schools have traditionally been perceived as "pseudo military, rugby only, stereotypical male" environments. Nelson College is the country's oldest state secondary school, but he says it has become much more progressive, helping to produce rounded students.

"Qualifications without maturity, without responsibility, without a sense of self and wellbeing - it's just a qualification. It doesn't make you a good person or a good citizen or a good father," O'Shea says.  

Now, success is celebrated in any field: salsa dancing, gaming, kite-surfing, as well as academia.

"I say we're a boys' school with traditions not a traditional boys school. We're not pigeonholing them or straitjacketing what it means to be male."  

This article was created for Nelson College.  Enrolments open now for School boarding and prep.

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