Many years ago, I went to university some considerable distance away from my home, so I stayed in a university residential college. Until a few years before I arrived, this had been a female-only college. As a consequence, it had no male toilets (i.e. with urinals). Therefore, I could be having a sit and a think in a cubicle alongside another cubicle in which a woman was having a sit and a think. Surprisingly, this did not seem to be a problem for the people who ran the college. Nor were there any problems with males and females going to the same toilets in the three years I spent at the college, as far as I am aware. If there had been, I would have heard of them, as I was one of the tutors in the college.
Travelling forward a couple of years, I was employed in an organisation in a town way out in the bush. One of its outposts was a storage shed, which only had a single toilet for about 5 people, and which outpost I needed to visit on occasion. One of the employees was an Englishman and another was a Frenchwoman. The Englishman, was mortified that he would have to share a toilet with a woman, because (to paraphrase) ‘he didn’t know where she had been’. People pointed out to him that the Frenchwoman didn’t know where he had been either, while others pointed out that he shared a toilet with female visitors to his home. Despite this, none of these entreaties made any impression on him.
Moving forward a few decades and today, in response to questions about the mooted Religious Discrimination Act, the Attorney General Michaelia Cash said that a move to strip religious schools of the ability to discriminate against transgender students would raise complications over toilets (she used the prudish Americanism ‘bathrooms’). The act would amend s38(3) of the Sex Discrimination Act to make it unlawful to expel students because they are gay – but this narrow amendment will leave schools with a legal basis to discriminate against students on the basis of gender identity. According to Cash, attempting to protect transgender students would upset the ethos of single-sex religious schools1. Really? Then maybe that single-sex ethos needs to change.
I realise that there has been much research into the value of single sex schools when compared with co-educational schools as well as single sex classes in co-educational schools, and their effects on both boys and girls. This has chiefly focused on academic performance, either using a summary measure of overall achievement or examining achievement in particular subject areas. Findings have differed across and within countries, according to the method of analysis used and the specific outcome selected2. Unlike Australia, there are no single-sex schools in Finland, and less than 2% of students attend private schools3.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA is a worldwide study that evaluates educational systems in selected countries by assessing student performance in reading, mathematics and science. The PISA study is normally undertaken every three years. However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 study has been postponed. As a consequence, the 2018 test is the most recent available. In the PISA test in 2018, Finnish students performed well above the OECD average in reading, mathematics, and science knowledge4.
In this 1918 test, Australian students were behind Finnish students in every metric and the Australian scores have declined significantly since the PISA test was started in 20005.
But it is clear that we should concentrate on toilets, and it is strangely appropriate that it is currently this government’s main concern about education, because that is where we are headed; down the toilet.