Do single sex schools offer any benefits for students, or are they a relic of the past?

With Ireland having the highest number of single sex schools in Europe, Aileen McGrath discusses whether this helps or hinders students.

The issue of Gender equality will always be a focal point of conversation, however with the new year marking one hundred years since women got the right to vote in Ireland, it seems as though equality has become even more topical. This heightened awareness and discussion has only recently spurred on debate in relation to the place of gender equality in one of the most prominent areas of life: education. Is the Irish education system hindering the progress of equality by keeping in place an archaic system founded on the basis of a strict religious culture that we no longer adhere to?

Over a third of secondary schools, and about a fifth of primary schools are single sex. This being the case, one would assume there must be some benefits to their existence. The President of the Institution of Guidance Counsellors, Beatrice Dooley, who does not take any side in the debate, presented what the main arguments in favour of single sex schools are on the Newstalk radio show, Lunchtime live. Most of the studies supporting single sex schools state that worldwide, girls in particular do better in single-sex schools.

One could suggest two main factors contributing to this conclusion. Firstly, second level can often be seen as quite a fragile and vulnerable time for girls, as between the ages of 12 and15, they begin to focus on self-image and acceptance. Dooley made the point that at this difficult age, girls would further suffer due to the exposure of a mixed environment.

“By keeping this stigma alive, are we not just perpetuating the problem?”

The second argument preferential to single-sex schooling is the age-old, arguably exhausted idea that boys and girls serve purely as distractions to each other at this stage of maturity.

Nevertheless, one must call into question whether reducing members of the opposite sex to mere objects of distraction is not only undermining, but continuing to do more damage than harm. By keeping this stigma alive, are we not just perpetuating the problem?

From a careers perspective, mixed schools would be preferable as there are undeniably a wider range of subject choices available. With gender-based schooling unfortunately comes restricted subject choice. There is seriously restricted access to STEM subjects along with certain sports in many female-only schools, which can have the consequence of leading to gender stereotypes in terms of gender-based career choices.

Muiris O’Connor, head of Policy and Strategic Planning at the Higher Education Authority wrote a 2007 Report for the Department of Education titled SéSí; Gender in Irish Education. This report drew attention to the  worrying truth, that in today’s twenty-first century Ireland, “the prejudices about what girls could or could not do, or were or were not capable of, were deeply ingrained.” Whether this is due to the separate education of both sexes remains uncertain, but it is doubtful that this is having any positive effect in this regard.

“The ESRI in 2010, found “very little consensus” on whether single sex education leads to better outcomes for girls or boys.”

The University Observer spoke to Professor Dympna Devine, head of UCD School of Education who argued that “It is not true to say that boys and girls do better in single sex schools although that tends to be a common view. What the research suggests is that it is only in the area of mathematics that girls tend to do less well in co-education contexts than in girls-only contexts, attributed to the misperception that ‘maths’ is a boys subject and one which girls tend to have less confidence in.”

According to Devine, the socio-economic backgrounds of students is “more significant in determining education achievement… The biggest concern in relation to under performance tends to be with respect to boys in working class schools.”

The most recent Irish review of research in the area, carried out by Emer Smyth at the ESRI in 2010, found “very little consensus” on whether single-sex education leads to better outcomes for girls or boys. Therefore, it is difficult to defend the benefits of single-sex schools from a purely academic standpoint.

Looking at the issue from a societal and equality point of view, Labour Senator Aodhán O’Ríordán, says “there are issues around the heavy gender segregation in Irish schools that I think the Department of Education should look at.” He argues that “if they already made the policy 20 years ago that they won’t sanction any new [single-sex] school, then maybe they should start talking to existing schools.”

If we are trying to encourage the youth to believe absolutely in equality of the sexes and genders, doing it in separate buildings does not really make sense. This idea has been backed by many, including Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality Studies at the UCD School of Social Justice, making the point: “how can we advance in terms of gender understanding or in terms of equality more generally, without organised social scientific education?”

In summation, it seems apparent that while there are pros to single-sex schools they seem to run contrary to the principles of diversity and pluralism in Irish Society. 20 years ago, the Department of Education stopped giving sanction to new single-sex schools, which could be seen as a rejection of their very existence. In order to move forward, we must get rid of backward thinking concepts that do not align with the vision and views of today’s society.