The single-sex debate: should girls be allowed in a boys’ zone?
Lamenting his experience in an all-boys secondary school, the comedian David O’Doherty wonders, “What’s more important? Getting a C in geography, or being able to relate to 50 per cent of the population?”
Increasingly, parents are asking themselves similar questions when it comes to choosing a school for their children and more and more are favouring mixed schools.
On a practical level, it’s easier if you can send both your sons and your daughters to the same school, but many parents simply prefer the idea of not separating the sexes when it comes to schooling.
The research appears to be on their side. Ireland has a strong tradition of single-sex schools and years ago, the belief was that girls, in particular, did better when separated from boys. More recent studies, however, have largely discredited these findings. Separating boys and girls, they have found, has little or no effect on educational outcomes. Much more important are factors such as class size, mode and quality of teaching, as well as where students are starting from an academic standpoint.
Number of single-gender primary schools in the Republic. There are 2,679 co-ed primary schools
In Ireland, for decades now, it has been the policy of the Department of Education and Skills to aim for as many schools as possible to be co-educational at both primary and post-primary levels and it seems that even some well-known fee-paying schools are taking note.
Late last year Mark Hederman, the abbot of Glenstal Abbey, a boys’ boarding school in Co Limerick, said the school would favour a move towards co-education, although no date has been set for such a change. Another school is set to go even further. After more than 90 years of educating boys, Sandford Park School, a private school in Ranelagh, is opening its doors to girls in September.
Ireland still has a relatively large proportion of single-sex schools when compared with the rest of Europe. This is largely due to the legacy of school organisation dating back to the 1800s when most primary schools in urban areas were mixed in junior and senior infants and then became single-sex senior schools from first or second class. According to the Department of Education and Skills, this has changed over time and now most primary schools are co-educational.
Increasingly, researchers on the area of single-sex versus co-education are finding that the gender mix of classes has no impact on the educational achievement of girls and boys. A review commissioned by the department of education in the US found that large-scale reviews of single-sex versus co-educational in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand found little difference in academic outcomes between the two.
There have been cases where outcomes from single-sex schools have looked promising, but when researchers looked closer, these tended to be attributable to other factors such as the socioeconomic status of the research participants.
These conclusions are mirrored in research around the world. A study by the ESRI conducted in the 1990s found that single-sex schools conferred no academic advantage, while another paper published by Emer Smyth of the ESRI in 2010, reviewed research from English-speaking countries and concluded that, “There appears to be very little consensus on whether single-sex education is advantageous to girls’ or boys’ academic achievement.”