I was the first child in my family.
My parents came from very different educational backgrounds. Understandably, they were unsure of what the best schooling experience for me would be.
My mother was a schoolteacher herself. Exposed to many conflicting schools of thought on education, she found it hard to make a decision.
So, anxious to get things right, she got experimental.
For the first nine years of my life, I attended co-ed schools.
From Primary 1 through 6, I attended a government-funded Chinese primary school. From Secondary 1 to 3, my years were spent in a government school where the curriculum was taught in Malay.
My final two years in the Malaysian education system were extremely traumatising – I was abruptly transferred to the same all-girls convent school my mother used to attend.
The culture shock of the transfer was immediate and jarring.
On my first day, I was unsettled seeing only female students. Except for the male teachers, there was not a single person in sight who was male.
Some classmates decided to give me a tour of the school compound.
“This is the Physics lab, here is the Chemistry lab, that’s the AVA room…”
And then we stopped right in front of the school gate. Right opposite our school is our brother school, an all-boys convent school.
“…and this is where we cuci mata!” Giggled my new friends.
I was mystified. I had spent most of my early years playing with boys. Most of my cousins around my age were all male. Back in my previous schools, many of my close friends were also guys.
Interacting with the fellas and hanging out with them on a regular basis was nothing unusual.
So to me, the way my classmates reacted towards the presence of the opposite sex seemed strange.
It was the same for students at my brother school. That fact was apparent whenever I went over for inter-school club meetings.
As I walked past the classrooms, even the Form 1 students would hoot and wolf-whistle at the sight of me.
This segregation of the students by gender had made seeing the opposite gender both a novelty and a mystery to some.
Also, there was a noticeable aura of hyper-competitiveness amongst my classmates. The competitiveness in my all-girls school was at unprecedented levels, nothing like my co-ed school experience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, being around only individuals of the same gender triggered a more urgent sense of rivalry among the students.
Everyone fought hard to do well: from scoring good grades, to gaining favour with the popular members of the opposite gender.
My experience might be familiar to readers who have been through an all-girls school. Here are the experiences of others in both co-ed and single-sex (all-boys/all-girls) schools:
Malaysians from co-ed schools
PK, 33, said, “It was fun. You find friendship in both (genders). It was easier to blend in. And if you were a bit more interested in girl stuff, you could talk about it with the girls. Many of them would support you!”
He fondly remembers his co-ed school experience as one where he got to mix around. Many of his friendships with both male and female classmates are still going strong today.
Of single-sex schools, he commented, “I feel that if I went to one, I will either become an outcast or be inducted into a brotherhood. The experience could go to either extreme.”
Lynn, 28, agreed that co-ed school was mostly a positive experience for her. “I’ve only been in co-ed. I enjoyed it. I couldn’t get along with some girls, but there were always boys who were fun to hang out with.”
However, when puberty hit, some things could get awkward. “Growing boobs wasn’t fun. The boys were weird about it, and I had to hide them a lot. So I got quite insecure also lah.”
Matt, 31, felt that from an adult perspective, the most obvious upside of co-ed school was how “early exposure to girls informs us on how to behave appropriately around them.”
From a teenager’s point of view, however, co-ed school was pleasant because they had “more varied species of the opposite sex to gawk at!”
He also noted, “There was a very strong bond between students in single-sex schools. It’s like a brotherhood or sisterhood, and these connections seem to last right through adulthood.”
Malaysians from single-sex schools
Chrislynn, 29, explained, “I’ve been to an all-girls school for both primary and high school. I feel that it does make you jakun when it comes to members of the opposite sex.”
Being around other girls did seem to foster more freedom of expression. “It gives you a weird shamelessness in social settings. You’re comfortable to say the first thing that comes to mind.”
But it has its disadvantages too, she felt. “I feel co-ed school students are much better socialised. They understand social cues better.”
Kah Ling, 29, attended a co-ed primary school and after that, a single-sex secondary school.
“I didn’t really notice the difference until after Form Three. There was a bridge between my school and our brother school. There were always people dating there.”
Fights were common among the girls in her school. “I was amused by the girls who fought with each other. There would be hair-pulling matches in the school field!”
An all-girls school meant less awkwardness about biological functions. “It’s comfortable to be in an all-girl school, like when you have a period-stained skirt. It’s normal-ish.”
Lilian, 62, recalls that there was a lot of bullying in an all-girls school. “I was a chubby girl for a while, so some of the girls started a bullying campaign. They got everyone to unfriend me. Also, there were a lot of rumours about people being lesbians.”
However, in describing her friendships in school, she felt a strong sense of sisterhood and belonging which for her lasted decades after graduation.
“Many of us formed strong bonds. We were like sisters who took care of each other. We still meet up regularly – last year I went on holiday with a large group of ex-classmates. The alumni still actively organises events.”
What does an education consultant think?
Ing Hui, 34, education placement specialist at MMS, has eleven years of experience in the education industry.
She felt that there were pros and cons for both single-sex and co-ed schools.
Based on the data, single-sex schools often produce higher academic achievements. However, for social skills and sports achievements, co-ed schools tend to excel more.
“It may be good to send children to a co-ed primary school, followed by a single-sex school secondary school. The idea is that it’s better so students will be more focused, and not distracted by the opposite sex.”
But based on both her personal and professional experiences, she prefers co-ed education.
“I always tell parents that the world has both genders. Letting children grow up in an environment with both boys and girls will help them to develop in a healthier and more realistic environment.”
“The girls’ empathetic characteristics will inspire boys, and boys’ playfulness and strength will help girls to adapt to a tough environment.”
“I also feel single-sex schools tend to have more bullying. This is just my personal opinion.”
In the end, it comes down to the pros and cons
I used to hate how my mother kept making me change schools. I also found my single-sex school experience limiting and uncomfortable.
But now that I’m no longer a gawky teenager, I’m just glad I experienced so many different institutions of study. I got to witness first-hand how people respond to different social situations.
Some friendships I made in my single-sex school have lasted until today. I ended up going to the same university with two classmates from my single-sex school.
I can’t say the same about the friends from co-ed school, as I had to quickly reinvent myself with each new class environment I got put in.
How about you? What schools did you attend? What do you think of single-sex and co-ed schools? I’d like to hear about your experiences – let me know in the comments on Facebook!
For more stories about school life, check out Malaysians Tell Us the Stupidest Things They’ve Done in High School and These Four Malaysian Teachers Went the Extra Mile for Their Students: Here Are Their Stories.