To co-ed or not to co-ed, that is the question

Two Church schools which have been a stalwart for boys’ only education for generations, De La Salle college and Stella Maris college are holding consultation meetings about the possibility of introducing co-education starting from Year 1 students in the 2025/26 scholastic year.

Two Church schools which have been a stalwart for boys’ only education for generations, De La Salle college and Stella Maris college are holding consultation meetings about the possibility of introducing co-education starting from Year 1 students in the 2025/26 scholastic year.

The colleges fall under the aegis of the De La Salle Brothers and a spokesperson for the Curia said feedback is currently being gathered from staff across the two colleges, including St Benild School (early years) which forms part of Stella Maris College. Parents and students have also been asked for their feedback but the final decision will be that of the religious congregation and the respective governing bodies of the colleges. Asked why they are considering this change, a spokesperson said that they were adapting to the “sign of the times… and current realities.”

In Malta, which follows the British system of education, children in state schools have always been mixed at primary level but were then segregated once they reached secondary school (from the ages of 11 - 15). State secondary schools eventually switched to co-ed in 2014. Privately-run independent schools have always been mixed.

Church schools, however, have been reluctant to embrace this transition to becoming co-ed. At primary level, nine church schools in Malta and Gozo are now co-ed at primary level but only one school, St Albert the Great is mixed at secondary level, while St Aloysius college is in the process of becoming co-ed in the next few years.

The feedback online has been interesting, with a lot of the comments skimming over the actual implications of co-education on the children themselves, but more concerned with how much harder it will be for boys to be accepted into these schools now. This is understandable, as with girls being accepted as well, the number of available places will be reduced. However, for this decision to be contemplated, I am sure that the La Sallians have done their homework when it comes to future demographic trends. Some parents had a point though that even girls’ Church schools should take this route, to provide an equal playing field, and open up more places for boys.

Personally, I have never been a fan of schools which separate girls and boys. It never made sense to me to keep students apart during their most formative pubescent years and then throw them together again at what is possibly the most sensitive time for teenagers – at the age of 16 when their hormones are raging and all everyone is thinking about is sexual attraction. Having attended both a co-ed school and a girls’ only school I can tell you that it was in the latter that I encountered the most “boy crazy” girls. They were, to put it mildly, obsessed with any chance to meet members of the opposite sex. A few of them were already in serious relationships which back then meant saying you are an “għarusa” (going steady, practically engaged) and that the boyfriend has already been through the ‘meet the parents’ phase or as we say in Maltese “jidħol id-dar” (which literally means, he has entered the family home).

Now we are talking the mid-70s here so one has to appreciate that a serious boyfriend at the age of 14 - 15 meant one thing: the relationship was going to lead to marriage even if the engagement period would often be seven years long. In fact, it was considered the norm for many girls to eventually marry their first boyfriend. When someone got cold feet and broke off a long relationship/engagement which was heading towards the altar it was greatly frowned upon – I often wonder how many just went through with it rather than face the opprobrium of family and society? It also used to bemuse me how someone could know they have found “the one” when they have barely experienced life. (I hasten to add that I also know a number of couples who were childhood sweethearts who have gone on to have long and happy marriages).

Yes, they were very different times. But I also think a lot of these too serious romantic entanglements at such a young age had to do with not being exposed to boys as schoolmates and just being friends. Any contact with teenage boys was accompanied by giddy excitement and swooning; they were mysterious creatures who could only be seen in the context of potential boyfriends in the amorous sense. And then, after the strict segregation up to Form 5, what does our educational system do? It lets 16-year-olds loose at Sixth Form where they are suddenly co-ed, and they have to learn how to deal with the opposite sex, while navigating those difficult adolescent years (and trying to pass important exams at the same time). It must be such a culture shock for those who have been too sheltered all their lives and who have no clue how to communicate and behave with those of a different gender.

I just think it is so much healthier, especially for their emotional intelligence, for boys and girls to grow up together at school from the time they are young. Co-education, when implemented properly, teaches mutual respect. If done right, it teaches boys that girls can be just as brainy in any subject and it teaches girls that boys can be great support systems rather than just boyfriend material. Being together in the same classroom is taken for granted and there is less social awkwardness.

The parents who prefer boys only schools to remain as they are cited the fact that it allows boys “to be themselves”, whatever that means. The flaw in this argument is that we do not go through life segregated from each other. Most families have both males and females at home (even if it is just the mother). And unless they are going to be kept cocooned at home, I’m guessing these boys will be bumping into girls at some point outside of school hours and then what will they do? How will they eventually know how to treat girls as equals if they have spent a large portion of their lives only dealing with their own gender during their daily interactions at school, which is where they spend most of their time?

It is significant, however, that those who advocate for separating the genders are those who see it is as more beneficial for girls. For example, in 2022 Loren Bridge, Executive Officer, Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia said, “If we are serious about gender justice then the best learning environment for girls is one that is free from gender stereotyping, unconscious bias and social pressure — where girls are encouraged to speak up, to take healthy risks with their learning, ask questions, share their views, and participate in subjects and activities that are usually dominated by boys — and this environment is a girls’ school… Girls’ schools turn the tables on gender inequality, they put girls first in every activity, every opportunity, every time and this can be life-changing for a girl,” she said.

I am not convinced by this argument. I would think that the ultimate test is when they leave the girls’ only environment and have to hold their own with boys… will they still be as confident, ambitious and outspoken?

The other litmus test is academic achievement. A cursory look at reports of Matsec results paints a picture of girls consistently faring better than boys in their exams. Earlier this year, MCAST also reported an increase in girls registering for STEM subjects (science, technology engineering and mathematics). At University, women also outnumber men at diploma, bachelor’s and Master’ level. To be fair, I could not find any comparative results to indicate whether these high-flying female students are coming from single sex schools or co-ed schools so if such a study exists, that would provide a more accurate analysis.

In the larger scheme of things, the school environment should reflect the real world and, unfortunately, for too long it did just that – with the Old Boys’ network dominating most of our political, professional and business spheres. Maybe it has to be co-education becoming the norm which will finally change all that.