Two years on – Canberra Grammar girls out in force

Emma Macdonald

The decision for Canberra Grammar to become coeducational was taken after much time and deliberation by headmaster Dr Justin Garrick.

But even he has been surprised with just how quickly the transition has taken place.

A mere two-and-a-half years on from the momentous—and somewhat controversial—announcement, the school can boast a 30 percent female student population, with girls now enrolled at every year level from pre-kindergarten to Year 12.

“We have got to this point far more quickly than we thought we might have,” says Justin.

“We initially did it in a carefully-staged way, because we wanted to make sure we got it right for everybody at each point, allowing the school time to adjust and ensuring the girls who joined us were given the chance to have a really good experience.”

This meant deferring girls in some of the early high school years until this year—despite strong interest from families to enrol—to ensure a critical mass of girls in each class.

“We figured that people would hang back a bit longer and see how it went, but in fact, the take-up has been huge and the response was far more positive and active than we might ever have anticipated. To think that this year we are coed end-to-end for the first time ever, within just over two years of making the decision is quite remarkable,” Justin said.

The female population is slightly larger in the primary years—at 35 percent—than in the senior school – at 25 percent.

Head of Primary Rosalie Reeves said the move to coeducation ended a traditional split in the families who educated their daughters at Canberra Grammar until Year 2 but then had to move them to a school which took girls—usually Canberra Girls Grammar.

“It never really sat comfortably with us that at the end of Year 2 we said goodbye to the girls simply because we had no opportunity to keep them here. We watched our girls leave friends and the school community they knew and loved behind. And family units were broken up when there were both sons and daughters and parents then had to try and juggle the demands of two schools.”

This year, 80 percent of girls in Year 2 moved up to Year 3.

When the school went public on 27 October in 2015, there was an immense debate across the city on the issue of single-sex education. While some of the parents were reported in the media as feeling ambushed by the decision, Justin said that only two families left the school citing the move to coeducation as the reason for their departure.

In 2019, the school will open female boarding positions. Canberra Girls Grammar, meanwhile, has announced it is phasing boys out of its junior school years to focus solely on girls.

For all the debate over the change, Canberra Grammar’s waiting lists and status as one of the city’s largest schools with more than 2000 students suggests “great community confidence in the education we are providing here”, according to Justin.

Meanwhile, a stroll across campus confirms both the boys and girls appear completely indifferent to the gender issue.

“If you walk around you see a really harmonious, natural school community. Nobody is really fussed by it to be quite frank,” he says.

But behind the scenes, there have been some significant changes. Investment in school infrastructure has continued apace and while the girls’ and boys’ toilets across campus have received an upgrade, bigger-ticket items include new common areas, learning areas and staff facilities with the boarding house renovations to start soon. Meanwhile, the Sports Department had to bring on new teams for girls in netball, basketball and hockey as well as mixed teams in a raft of other sporting codes including soccer, cricket and rowing.

The school uniform has been remade to reflect a new coed identity and offers girls the chance of pants and shorts, as well as skirts and dresses, at every year level.

And academically, the entire school curriculum has been re-assessed to consider whether there was any inbuilt gender bias towards boys.

“We did find some—in history for instance, where we had a lot of focus on war which plays to perhaps a masculine interest. We reworked all of our subjects to ensure balance,” said Justin.

Rosalie noted the school had also moved to bring forward its personal development (and sex education) into Year 4 from Year 6 to cater for the earlier maturation of girls.

In the senior years, the school had appointed Dimitria Karapanagos to act as the Co-Education Transition Coordinator, and a point-of-contact for female students.

Having formerly worked at a senior level within an all-girl’s school, Dimitria takes weekly meetings with the girls and oversees special opt-in programs including a personal development course “All About Girls” which is offered in Years 6 and 7.

She said the girls tended to be evenly mixed in all subjects – with the exception of the elective of IT which had a heavier take-up among the boys – and having girls right across the senior school provided strong mentoring opportunities between older and younger students.

Head of the Senior School David Smart said he had personally noticed the dynamics in his Businesses Studies and Economics classes had become “a little more settled” and that the girls had enhanced the nature of debate and learning.

“But in the end, our school has always had an over-riding obligation to treat each student as an individual and in that sense, absolutely nothing has changed.”

In 2019, the school will open female boarding positions.

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author