Call to end ‘outdated’ single-sex schools within 10-15 years

Move needed to tackle gender inequality and ‘toxic masculinity’, Labour says

The Government will face calls this week to end “outdated” single-sex school admission policies within a 10- to 15-year period.

Ireland has a relatively high proportion of single-sex schools by international standards, which is regarded as a legacy of the denominational control of the education system.

The Labour Party will publish a Private Member's Bill which seeks to end gender discrimination in school admission.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD, the party’s education spokesman, said single-sex education was an “anomaly” for a new generation of parents.


He said moves to promote consent and tackle “toxic masculinity” made more sense when boys and girls  were educated together.

“We’re working to put a greater emphasis on gender mix in politics, sport and business – yet this is the one area that we haven’t addressed,” he said.

“It also makes it harder to break down barriers to gender equality when we separate boys and girls. And on a practical level, it makes no sense for many parents to have to drop children off at separate schools.”

The Bill proposes giving primary schools a 10-year period to end single-sex admissions and secondary schools a 15-year period.

After this period has elapsed, he said the State should cease providing public funding to schools which continue to discriminate on the basis of gender.

About 17 per cent of all primary schools in the State are single-sex, while about a third of secondary schools are either all-boys or all-girls.

When asked for its views on the issue, the Department of Education said questions such as whether schools are single sex or co-educational rested with school patron bodies, subject to the agreement of the department.

It said new schools are generally co-educational in nature and provide greater flexibility than single-sex schools in meeting demographic requirements in an area.

However, it said single-sex provision may be made if there is an identified imbalance between the capacities of single-sex schools in the area.

“Similarly, where the extension of capacity at existing schools is identified as the preferred solution, the expansion of co-educational schools is typically preferred,” a department spokeswoman added.

Academic performance

One of the arguments in favour of retaining single-sex schools has been their superior academic performance.

However, Prof Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute said the most recent reviews of Irish research have shown "very little consensus" on whether single-sex education leads to better outcomes for girls or boys.

“There are a lot of myths circulating about the relative merits of single-sex and co-education,” said Prof Smyth.

“Single-sex schools, on average, are more middle-class in intake and tend to draw students of higher initial ability. When we adjusted for social class and prior ability we found no significant different in the academic outcomes of students from single-sex and co-ed schools, in either the Junior or Leaving Cert.

“There was far greater variation between schools of different levels of advantage – that’s the real issue.”

Opinion is divided among school principals over whether single- or mixed-gender schools are best for students.

Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College, an all-girls secondary school in south Co Dublin, said single-sex girls' schools allow students to to have a "safe space" in which to express themselves through drama, speech or music.

However, Aaron Wolfe, principal of Coláiste Éamann Rís – which switched from boy-only to co-ed in 2019 – said it has been the "best move we ever made".

“It really is the best thing we’ve ever done . . . [boys and girls] have a better understanding of each other. It’s how college is; it’s how society is.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent