In brief – It is essential that co-ed schools in Victoria considering strategies to achieve gender balance obtain legal advice about appropriate exemptions to ensure anti-discrimination laws are not breached
Co-educational schools are increasingly aiming to offer learning experiences to students consistent with equal gender ratios. This often follows complaints from parents that classes are “swamped” with students of one gender (almost always more boys than girls) and that this may have implications for learning outcomes.
However, schools cannot just alter enrolments to address gender imbalance. In Victoria, obtaining an exemption under anti-discrimination legislation is the only way schools can lawfully introduce affirmative action policies to attract more female students.
Single sex or co-ed?
Since the 1970s, enrolments in Victorian independent co-educational schools show that these schools have enrolled more boys than girls. According to research examined by Susan Bennett in her PhD thesis, despite decades of comparative research addressing the relative merits of co-educational vs. single-sex settings for girls and/or boys, the results have been inconclusive.1 Nevertheless, a school’s gender context is often central to parental decision-making.
Exemption permitting gender-based discrimination
In Victoria, the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the basis of various personal attributes, one of which includes gender in the area of education. It is illegal to manipulate student enrolments to benefit a particular gender of student without an exemption from the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
In 2016, VCAT granted an exemption to Ivanhoe Grammar School to permit gender-based discrimination to enable the school to achieve gender balance in its enrolments. The school had been a single-sex institution for 77 years before becoming a co-educational school in 1992. Since that time, the school had taken a range of steps to try to increase the number of female students, including:
replacing the conventional…