‘Co-ed schooling is often a problem for girls and boys’
Girls and boys at San Anton School line up alongside one another, their blazers and bows turning the assembly hall into a postcard for mixed-gender education.
Here, there is broad agreement among teachers, students and parents that the school’s co-educational system has served alumni well over the past two decades.
But replicating this model throughout the secondary school system without adequate preparation would just not work, a leading education expert has warned.
“All international research points to the conclusion that co-ed and mixing is often a problem for both girls and boys,” education lecturer Mary Darmanin said.
According to Prof. Darmanin, in such mixed-gender classrooms boys tended to shun reading, considered ‘feminine’, while girls shied away from science subjects, something also highlighted by science academic Deborah Chetcuti.
“Some authors suggest that in a co-ed class, boys... tend to dominate the science activities and take the lead in practical work while girls were likely to be more passive,” said Prof. Chetcuti, who used to head the University’s department of maths, science and technical education.
Come September, Pembroke secondary school will begin its transformation into Malta’s first mixed-gender public secondary school. The Government has made it clear that it has no intention of imposing this model on other State schools, although Education Minister Evarist Bartolo has not excluded other schools going down the co-educational route in the future.
Making that happen would take more than the stroke of a pen, Prof. Darmanin insisted, especially since gender equity proposals first put forward in a 1999 report have been gathering dust for over a decade.
“We remain without gender equity policies in schools, without gender equality officers and without much awareness among teachers of what such policies could include,” she said, lauding the Pembroke initiative as an opportunity for authorities to develop such a policy “based on sound empirical evidence and expert advice”.
In Prof. Chetcuti’s view, creating a co-ed learning environment for the sciences would require a fundamental rethink of science and its teaching methodologies.
Teachers “need to be trained to be able to cater for the needs of both boys and girls, so that they can each develop an individual identity as learners of science,” she said.
So how did mixed-gender schools such as San Anton manage to flourish?
According to Prof. Darmanin, the answer was part educational policy, part social class.
Students in independent schools often had parents less given to gender stereotyping and school administrations better equipped to “counteract the negative impact of mixing the sexes”.
San Anton school principal Joe Gauci was convinced that students of either sex brought out the best in each other.
“Because they work in mixed groups, in class and outside it, they are able to appreciate and explore different approaches and perspectives from both a male and a female standpoint,” Dr Gauci said, allowing them to grow academically, socially and personally.
For 20-year French teaching veteran Madeleine Dimech, the greatest advantage of having a mixed classroom was the mutual respect it engendered.
“Girls and boys have different experiences and having them together helps them learn from one another,” Ms Dimech said.
Having taught in both single and mixed-gender schools, IT teacher Silvio Camilleri felt that keeping boys and girls together throughout school simply made sense.
“It frightened me at first but I needn’t have worried,” he said.
“I’ve never had a problem teaching in a co-ed environment and it’s a system that I agree with.”
School head counsellor Ian Refalo agreed: “Gender becomes almost secondary. Boys and girls become friends with each other.
“I think our experience dispels the myth that having them together turns a school into some huge dating fest.”