Classrooms in private single-sex schools are where students learn toxic behaviours (Image: MChee Lee/Unsplash)

Toxic behaviours sitting unchecked in single-sex schools

Casey Barton only has good things to say about the boys she spent her formative high school years with at a co-educational school.

“The boys were able to co-[exist] with the girls because they [were] around them 24/7,” she said. “They were able to be friends with girls with no other motive and were… respectful of their female counterparts.”

She couldn’t say the same for the boys she came across when she transferred to an inner-Brisbane single-sex school in 2013 for years 11 and 12.

“I still remember the first party I went to [after moving to the girls’ school],” Casey reminisced. “The attitude of the boys [was] ‘the girls don’t have boys at their school so they’re desperate, so I can do whatever I want’.

“All the boys [were] physically grabbing the girls. Being around women their age was almost a novelty to them, which was where the issue of mistreatment and disrespectful behaviour came from.”

Unfortunately this was just the first of a string of bad experiences Casey had with boys from single-sex boys’ schools. While celebrating the end of her schooling at the infamous Gold Coast “Schoolies” festival in 2015, she was sexually assaulted by a student of one of the local boys’ colleges. Since then, Casey has been sexually assaulted twice more by two different men who also attended elite private boys’ schools.

“Being around women… was almost a novelty to them…”

“On all three occasions of sexual assault, [each] boy seemed legitimately shocked when I said ‘no’,” Casey told Hatch. “It was like they had never been told ‘no’ before.” She feels that boys-only school environments breed “entitled” students who “felt that they could do anything they wanted without consequences”.

Private boys’ schools’ ongoing relationship with toxic behaviours

The notion that private boys’ schools are a breeding ground for macho culture is nothing new.

In October 2019, a group of students from the affluent independent Catholic boys school St Kevin’s College in Melbourne were filmed performing an inappropriate chant on a tram, which included the lines:

“I wish that all the ladies
Were holes in the road
And if I was a dump truck
I’d fill them with my load.”

But does every all-boys’ school instil hyper-masculine behaviour in its students? Do all of those students err on the side of misogyny and harbour a disrespect for women?

University of New South Wales Associate Professor Dr Emma Jane likened toxic behaviours and pack mentality within private boys’ schools to “the filter bubble effect in online contexts”.

“If you are surrounded only by people who look and act like you do, then you won’t learn the critical skills required to navigate diversity and difference,” she said.

“Budding private school misogynists such as those from St Kevin’s” result from an “economic and ‘born to rule’ class-based privilege”.

Chad*, 21, attended a private boys’ school in Melbourne’s south-east from year five until he graduated in 2017. He said that while he found boys with an attitude of being “untouchable” rare, “an observable behaviour” of sexism and toxic masculinity did manifest in the male-dominated environment.

Chad acknowledged that the way his peers spoke about girls was often “disrespectful and crude”, and they would refer to girls as “stat[istics], regarding hooking up”.

“If you are surrounded only by people who look and act like you do, then you won’t learn the critical skills required to navigate diversity and difference,”

“Fortunately these [type of] behaviours didn’t carry over into interractions with the opposite sex,” he said. “I think that any type of sexist behaviour has more of a chance of being left unchecked in a male-dominated environment.”

Chad was candid about the fact that it was “easy” to be “one of the boys” and that at times, he was swept up in the aforementioned behaviour as a result of pack mentality. “I think the presence of girls would have massively altered behaviour in terms of how we would’ve talked and acted.”

However, now that he has left school and works in a mixed sex workplace, he doesn’t believe that toxic behaviour is exclusive to an all-boys’ school environment.

Co-educational learning can be just as toxic, experts say

Chris Hickey, professor of health and physical education at Deakin University, told The Guardian that while boys’ schools can be incubators for misogynistic culture, they “are not a given”.

“They’re not ‘unchallengeable’,” he said. “And they’re not specific to boys’ schools, either. It can happen anywhere, but there is a higher propensity for it when you have boys en masse who are left unchecked.”

Similarly, Dr Jane noted that there is no shortage of gendered toxicity in co-ed schools either, reflecting on the “despair” her feminist friends and colleagues feel over the treatment of female students in a co-educational setting.

“Their high school-aged daughters are routinely lectured about keeping the hemlines of their school uniforms low so as not to ‘distract’ the male students,” Dr Jane explained.

“The extremely dangerous implication here is that boys and men simply can’t control themselves around the sight of female[s].” She highlighted that the “male exculpation” in scenarios such as these “underpins so much sexual violence and harassment.”

The National Organisation for Women (NOW) (USA) opposes single-sex
education, disagreeing with the argument that single-sex learning is a solution for a safe, harassment-free learning envrionement.

“[W]hen we separate the sexes, we perpetuate the concept that men and women can’t get along, and that male harassment of women is best handled by building walls, not by changing the behaviour and its motivation,” the organisation found in a 2007 report, further injecting that this approach is the “coward’s way” in finding a solution to the problem.

“It serves to drive the sexes further apart, socialising our kids to perpetuate these divisions throughout their lives.”

While, anecdotally, examples of harassment and sexism are rife in private boys’ schools, Dr Jane called attention to the fact that similar toxicity can be found amongst all types of gender-segregated learning, though it is “tricky” to explain.

“Attempting to educationally segregate sexes and genders further reinforces damaging myths relating to sex and gender binaries, essential sex and gender differences, and so on,” she said. And this is despite the well-meaning, contemporary arguments put forward in favour of single-sex learning, such as lack of distractions caused by the presence of the opposite gender, and more opportunity for women to excel in leadership positions.

“Even the most progressive girls-only or boys-only schools… reinforce oppressive… premises.”

Systemic sexism manifests in subjects offered to students

Casey Barton reflected on systemic sexism that was manifested at her single-sex high school, which had an “old-fashioned principal” at its helm.

“We were denied a lot of subjects [in school] because they were ‘for boys’,” she said. “We had a very old-fashioned principal who believed in very traditional values for women.”

One year, Casey says her school had been given a government grant and the academic staff asked students for ideas on how to use the money. When an “overwhelming” number of students suggested they use the grant to build media studios and technology workshops, the proposal was denied, with the principal stating “‘[those] studies were more suited to co-ed schools'”.

“Instead, the money was used to build a ‘meditation labyrinth’, [which] is now just used as an art installation. Subjects like food tech and textiles were huge at our school.”

“Even the most progressive girls-only or boys-only schools… reinforce oppressive… premises.”

In a study conducted by Hatch assessing elective subjects offered at 14 Australian single-sex schools (seven girls’, seven boys’), it was found that both boys’ and girls’ schools predominantly offer subjects that conform to gender stereotypes.

More in-depth science and technology subjects such as forensic science and IT were more common within boys’ schools, whereas girls’ schools tend to lean towards offering “feminine” subjects which conform to stereotypical gender roles.

Similarly, subjects such as food technology and textiles were also remembered as prominent classes by several female students across Melbourne’s private single-sex school community.

“Sexism from academic staff towards the students was quite prominent,” one student, who wished not to be named, told Hatch. “I wanted to study media and even suggested that I could undertake the subject at the boys’ campus [of our school], but was knocked back because it was a ‘boy’ subject and I’d come back ‘too rambunctious’.

“It was suggested I stick with studio arts instead,”

NOW also believes that “so called ‘separate but equal’ policies rarely treat girls equally, often relying on outdated sex stereotypes about girls’ and boys’ interests and abilities.”

Since graduating in 2015, Casey Barton says her former school has “significantly improved” in its practices relating to systematic sexism. While she acknowledges that not all single-sex schools harbour an engrained toxicity, she hopes that single-sex schools and their communities continue to work to challenge harmful norms going forward.

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.