Are the days of single-sex schools numbered?

Some principals are fighting back against proposals to end ‘outdated’ all-boys and all-girls schools within 15 years

They’ve been a fixture of the Irish education system for generations - but could the days of single-sex schools be numbered? All-boys and all-girls schools current account for 17 per cent of primary schools and about one third of secondary schools around the country.

This is a relatively unusual phenomenon across the globe; Ireland has the second highest proportion of single sex schools in Europe, second only to Malta, and among the highest proportion of single sex schools globally, outside of the Arab world.

The Labour Party has recently put forward a bill that would see all single-sex primary schools turn co-educational within ten years, and at second level within 15 years.

“It’s a hard argument to make, apart from tradition, as to why girls and boys are so different that they need to be separated,” says Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Labour Party spokesperson for education. “Why should we tell a five-year-olds that they’re going to go to a different school from their brother or sister because of their gender?”

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In a way, he argues, it is already Department of Education policy given that it has not sanctioned a new single-sex school in 24 years.

“The view of the department over that period was that any new school had to be co-educational,” explains Ó Ríordáin.

“I don’t know how we can properly espouse the idea of gender equality in the school system, while we are separating young people on the basis of gender, and contriving a scenario where they don’t learn side by side. It’s not going to help. It isn’t reflective of the society outside the school gate,” he says.

We think schools should be allowed to be reflections of what a community of like-minded people want

Ó Ríordáin also claims there are other social effects of attending gender segregated schools.

“If you are in an all-boys school or all-girls school, are you afforded the same subject choices other schools are? Or is there a kind of traditional understanding that these are the games you play, these are the subjects that will be popular.”

“I think what education has to do is to prevent these false environments, these contrived environments that try to pretend to students that they will flourish in these environments.”

Perform better

While some still believe that single sex schools perform better academically, researchers say otherwise. Prof Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI, in her 2015 work – What Does the Research Tell Us About Single-Sex Education?), states that there is "very little consensus on whether single-sex education is advantageous to the overall academic achievement of girls or boys".

Many say the fact that single-sex schools, on average, tend to be in more affluent areas is a bigger factor behind behind the perception that they are academically superior.

What is not in dispute is the momentum behind co-education. Many single sex primary schools have either changed or merged with other schools to become co-educational over recent years. At second level,some single-sex schools have also made the leap to co-education recently.

After 190 years as an all-boys secondary school, Deerpark CBS in Cork – now renamed Coláiste Éamann Rís – changed to a mixed school model in 2019; it says it was “the best move we ever made”, said school principal Aaron Wolfe.

Rathdown School in Glenageary, an all-girls school, recently announced their intention to welcome boys, with boys joining the junior school on a phased basis from September 2022, and the senior school from September 2023.

Dermot Dix, principal of Rathdown junior school, said the decision came after many years of discussion and consultation and was not influenced by the Labour Party bill or recent discussions around gender-based violence.

Dix has extensive experience with schools moving from single sex to co-educational, having taught at an all-boys schools that welcomed girls, and the inverse while teaching in the US.

He observed that in all boys’ schools welcoming girls, sometimes a male-dominated environment persisted.

“The girls were still quiet and we felt they were still dominated and it was still a pretty male-dominated environment, which was not always easy for the girls.”

However, when teaching at an all-girls school that began to welcome boys, he did not find the reverse to be true.

“I believe that it is easier to protect your incoming initial minority,” explains Dix. “You don’t have to worry as much if that initial minority is boys coming into a formerly girls school. I do think that there are probably reasons why you have to really be careful to guard the incoming minority of girls coming into a formerly boys school.”

Top down

Barbara Ennis, principal of all-girls secondary school, Alexandra College in Miltown, Co Dublin, fears that the "safe space" environment that has been created for girls to express themselves may be affected if boys were to enter the school, and to dominate the girls.

“While I’m sure that would work in a co-ed school, I think there is a risk it would get dominated by boys. Here, they feel safe to experiment with different versions of themselves. It’s a safe, empowering environment.”

Both Dix and his counterpart in Rathdown's senior school, Brian Moore, feel it is the right move for Rathdown and its community, with Moore declaring "the need for a single sex school isn't there anymore".

However, Dix is not a proponent of the Labour Party’s bill and believes that these decisions should be made by each school individually to address the needs of the parents and students in their locality.

“We think that the top down decision from the government is not the right way to go here. We think schools should be allowed to be reflections of what a community of like-minded people want,” he says.

Regarding their decision to go co-educational, it ultimately came from parents of prospective students in the area.

My view is this violence against women has little or nothing to do with schools and more to do with what people experience at home and what they see in society

“We are listening to people who are either enthusiastic about the school and wished we would take their boy, or else they really liked what they heard, but they ultimately want to go co-ed anyway.”

Ennis also believes the proposed bill goes too far.

“The idea that we would have a better school community if we were co-ed is not something I subscribe to. If we start abolishing things, we become very dictatorial; we see freedom being taken away”.

Discussions on gender equality and poor attitudes towards women abound in the single sex school debate, with many arguing that poor attitudes towards the opposite sex thrive in single sex environments.

However, Ennis refutes this out of hand.

“My view is this violence against women has little or nothing to do with schools and more to do with what people experience at home and what they see in society. Abolishing single-sex schools is irrelevant. This is about wider society”, she maintains.

Ó Ríordáin acknowledges that these negative attitudes towards the opposite sex are not likely to be addressed altogether through the proposed bill making single sex schools co-educational. However, he believes it may address some of the root causes.

“There are many reasons why toxic masculinity is allowed to flourish,” he says. “But I think it is easier to tackle in a situation where young people are learning together, and understanding each other better. Where the idea of gender equality is to the fore, and where some of the gender stereotypes are broken down.”

Single sex schools: in numbers
30%: proportion of boys attending single-sex secondary school
38%: proportion of girls attending single-sex secondary school
128: number of all-girls secondary schools
101: number of all-boys secondary schools.
17%: proportion of single-sex primary schools in Ireland