What is the case against mixed-gender schools?
2019-02-01 00:00:00 -

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin


Last year was a historic one for women’s rights in Ireland. It was the 100th anniversary of the achievement of women’s suffrage and the election of the first female MP, Constance Markievicz from Sligo.


We also saw movement on the Gender Pay Gap legislation and, crucially, the repeal the infamous Eighth Amendment was achieved before the summer.


It strikes me as unusual, therefore, that one of the most glaring gender-based segregators in Irish society rarely gets discussed. It is time for us to genuinely reevaluate the justification, if any, or segregating our children along gender lines in so many of our nation’s schools.


The debate on religious patronage has been well aired and movement on the baptism barrier has been delivered. Organisations such as Educational Equality and Equate have articulated time and again their frustration at the massive influence of religious institutions over our education system.


The Educate Together movement has gone from strength to strength and are now to be found in almost every town and parish in the country.


Religious segregation is up for discussion and rightfully so. So why not gender segregation?


Ireland has a higher proportion of gender segregation than our European peers. One third of our second level schools are single gender, which is unusually high by international standards. Seventeen per cent of our primary school children still attend single-sex schools, a percentage that is much higher in Dublin.


We are strange when it comes to our gender-based education system. What is even stranger is that we don’t seem to want to talk about it.


Can any of us genuinely argue from a sound educationalist standpoint that separating girls and boys from their earliest days in primary school is a practice worth defending?


It is certainly more of a phenomenon in urban parts of the country, but it is a relic of a time past when girls and boys were considered to be so fundamentally different that having them in the same classroom would be morally and educationally detrimental to their development.


A 2011 study found no evidence that single-sex schooling benefits either girls or boys, despite the instinctive belief from parents that teenagers need to be housed in the schooling equivalents of a monastery or a nunnery. The same study also found that single-sex schooling promotes sexual stereotyping and can make it more difficult for different genders to get along.


An ESRI study by Prof Emer Smyth also showed little evidence for better academic outcomes for single-sex schooling. International evidence from almost every English-speaking country, however, shows co-education does lead to better social outcomes. Girls and boys engaging with each other as equals. Understanding one another. Challenging stereotypes together. One study in the UK even showed a disproportionately higher rate of marital breakdown from men in their 40s who had attended all-boys schools.


But even if the evidence didn’t show it, wouldn’t it still be wrong? Did African-Americans need educational analysis to argue that black and white children should attend the same schools in the Deep South in the 1950s?


The drive for integrated schooling in Northern Ireland doesn’t point to scientific research on better academic outcomes – it’s just the right thing to do. And desegregating the minority of our same-sex schools is also the right thing to do. Or at the very least it is the right time to talk about it.


At a time when women are speaking up louder than ever before about sexual violence and intimidation, we have a moral responsibility to examine what in our society needs repairing.


Segregated schooling presents a manufactured educational setting that has no relevance in the modern world. Gender equality demands parity of esteem, not separate schooling in separate buildings from morning to late afternoon.


I’m quite sure there are many who will disagree with me. There are thousands of parents of pupils in single-sex schools who will robustly defend their choice and the experience of their children in those same institutions.


I know exactly how they feel because I was a teacher and a principal of an all-girls primary school for 11 years and I loved every second of it. But no one should be frightened of a debate.


If we were to set a target of desegregating all our primary schools in the next 10 years, with community buy-in and taking account for the dynamics of each individual school, what would be the case against it?


Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour Party Senator.


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