Single-sex or co-ed?

In a culture of ‘fake tan’ and ‘trophy wives’, single-sex schools provide a safety net for girls, says Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College, Dublin

Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College,  Milltown,  Dublin. Photo: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College, Milltown, Dublin. Photo: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Tue, Jan 21, 2014, 02:00

Many Irish parents still choose to educate their children in single-sex environments, despite mixed research findings on the subject, or perhaps because of lack of choice. One third of Irish post-primary schools are single-sex, a higher proportion than is the norm internationally.

One of those schools is Alexandra College, a private all-girls’ secondary school in south Co Dublin. Last week, the principal, Barbara Ennis came out strongly in favour of single-sex schooling for girls, even suggesting the competitive environment in co-educational schools may be detrimental to the social development of young women.

As a teacher for 16 years, and a school principal for the past 11 years, Ennis says she has seen a steady erosion of the sense of self-worth of young women in Irish society.

“I am really concerned about how this is manifested in teenage girls. During the years leading up to the Celtic Tiger, I saw many second-level schoolgirls who were bright and resourceful being more concerned with fake tans, body image and the need to groom themselves to become trophy wives for men, than with themselves as individuals in their own right.

“The excessive concern with looking well, at the expense of being well, is an unfortunate dimension to how girls and young women feel they have to be in the world. This is deeply worrying. Young women are in danger of being reduced to sexual beings, trophies and appendages to men, or to women’s illusions of what boys and men think.”

It is Ennis’s contention that school years are when these attitudes develop, and she suggests that being around boys in the educational environment is part of the issue. She also points to a growing disrespect for female identity in Irish culture.

“I believe that the debasing of girls and young women is not merely an immature by-product of their own school years, but is actually reflective of a growing norm in Irish society. Consider the plots and characterisation, for instance, in the RTÉ TV drama, Love/Hate. There, women were exclusively depicted as appendages to their menfolk, to serve them as either stay-at-home wives or as prostitutes whose deaths did not matter, or as drug couriers. There was not a single strong woman in the whole series.”

We have to look beyond our own screens to Scandinavia and New Zealand, she says, to see women who are represented as equals of men, to series such as Borgen or Top of the Lake.

Ennis says that this generation needs extra protection because stereotyped images of women are coming at them from so many sources via phones, tablets, laptops, televisions, magazines and movies. Single-sex schools can provide that space, she says.

“Our schools provide an environment where we can help our children to find the truth about themselves and their role in society. Girls and boys are different, and their journeys of discovery are along different paths. Within single-sex schools for girls we see a greater emphasis on female education, achievement and self-esteem. In the classroom, girls are not reliant on male approval, they focus more on behaviours than physical appearance, and they participate more actively in class.”

A sense of identity
“Of course girls in single-sex schools continue to interact with boys in their family and social circles, but within the school environment they find a safety net of sorts, allowing them to learn and develop without the distraction of male-female competition. School is one part of a balanced mix of experience, but it may be the only place where girls can debate and understand issues away from the pressure of a mixed-gender group.”

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