Populists are mistaken in calling for end of single-sex schools

Gender discrimination will not evaporate if girls and boys are educated together

How many women have been written out of history? How many men continue to claim credit for work done by women, particularly in the disciplines of science and mathematics?

To find out the answer, all you need to do is speak to the women to whom it happened and continues to happen. History has trumped the stories of many women and their achievements.

This is true of the history of education as well. Even the most cursory glance at the annals of women’s education will reveal the barriers and a rank hatred aimed at those who fought for equal rights for women in education.

I work in a single-sex school that proudly acknowledges the legacy of trail-blazing women. One that is ever more conscious of moving forward in a progressive way. We must not succumb to amnesia about the past: denying women higher education was a powerful form of suppression, as is the current onslaught on all-female schools.


It is true that in Ireland in 2022, girls have equal access to education. But their right to the best type of education as females, is under threat. The rank hatred evinced over 100 years ago is being fomented again by populists who, today, wage war on single-sex schools.

It is curious that as critics take aim at single-sex schools in Ireland, all-female schools in America have multiplied twentyfivefold in the last 10 years. A 2018 UCLA study of 6,000 incoming female university students found that graduates of all-girls schools were more likely to show high levels of self-confidence about their scientific ability, consider themselves critical thinkers, score higher on measures of academic habits of mind, and demonstrate stronger study habits.

It is vacuous to argue that gender discrimination will evaporate if girls and boys are educated together. Discrimination stalks our society.

‘Mental toughness’

An all-girl learning environment, free from gender discrimination, enables girls to achieve greater academic success and be more confident. They leave equipped with the knowledge and skills required to overcome social and cultural gender biases. In its purposeful sculpting, it surpasses indiscriminately putting boys and girls together in classrooms, in the name of “normality”.

Graduates of all-girls schools are more likely to show high levels of self-confidence about their scientific ability and consider themselves critical thinkers

My experience is that girls learning in an ethos free from gender stereotyping possess strong “mental toughness”. According to a 2021 study in the UK by psychometric tester AQR International, girls from co-educational schools lack the same level of mental strength, emotional control and confidence as girls who have been to single-sex schools.

Mental toughness enables us to manage opportunities, challenges, stress and pressure and is significantly linked to higher academic attainment, increased motivation and enhanced educational outcomes.

During the pandemic years of 2020-2022, successive surveys of the girls at our school found extraordinary levels of physical and mental health fortitude, overall life satisfaction, and educational and career aspirations. These findings tally with those of Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2020.

International evidence also points to girls doing better in single-sex classrooms. A study of co-educational schools in Chile found that single-sex classrooms reduced the maths gender gap “by more than half”. This positive effect for girls is a result of how females respond positively to the gender composition of the classroom.

Rush towards sameness

Classroom type has a significant effect on girls’ achievement. Where students learn in single-sex classrooms, the average maths achievement of girls is almost always higher than the average achievement of boys. A 2017 study in Australia found that even when socioeconomic status was taken into account, girls at single-sex schools were far ahead of co-ed female students in reading and mathematics .

These findings from outside Ireland and Europe cannot be ignored. In our rush towards sameness, we will forget difference. In a society which purports to value the individual’s right to choose, we cannot abolish that which does not please populists.

Many of the commentators on single-sex education are men who regret the absence of girls from their classrooms

Populism never looks into the depths; it is, by definition, shallow. It cares not for the true needs of humans. Many of the commentators on the subject of single-sex education are men who regret the absence of girls from their classrooms, or who have sons they wish to be educated with girls, at the expense of those girls.

Fair? Equal? Normal? Young women, their parents and men must halt this mad gallop towards homogeneity and put women first. Girls need to be gritty, passionate and persevere towards their goals. Girls can unlock new levels of potential when their minds are trained in environments that are tailor-made for them.

I am proud to be able to say that the school in which I work produced the first women to receive degrees in Ireland or Britain. Six of them successfully studied at Dublin’s Royal University from 1891 and at Trinity College Dublin, once it opened its doors to women in 1903.

I stand on the shoulders of great women and my lifetime immersion as an educator, reaffirms the conviction that all-girls’ education provides a secure, nurturing space for girls that lights the fire of possibility and self-actualisation.

Single-sex schools for girls are a requirement for a healthy society. Women and girls matter. Populist views do not.

Barbara Ennis is principal of Alexandra College