Education is more than academic

An Cailín Rua

IN THE MIX Do we still really need to be investing in single-sex schools?

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

If a recent bill by the Labour Party to abolish single-sex school admission policies within the next 15 years is successful, students would benefit from the education system being brought ‘into the 21st century’.
That’s according to Labour’s Education Spokesperson Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin, who says the Education (Admission to Schools) (Co-education) Bill 2022 will move to bring Ireland – an outlier – in line with other European countries in terms of access to mixed education.
It’s an interesting debate, with arguments for and against, and represents another chapter in the modernisation and indeed the secularisation of Ireland. Currently around one-third of secondary school students attend single-sex schools, with 17 percent at primary level.
Those in favour of single-sex schools tend to use four main arguments. The first is academic performance, reinforced by data that shows that all-girls schools outperform all-boys schools when it comes to sending students to third level, with mixed schools lagging behind both.
Single-sex schools offer more opportunity for tailored education, apparently, and allow freer discussion in the classroom on topics that the presence of the opposite sex may inhibit. For girls and young women, in particular, all-girls schools can offer a supportive environment for them to learn and flourish as women. And finally, there is the argument that mixed education results in distraction for young people.
I’m not convinced any of these arguments stand up. While there is no arguing with academic performance data, what should really define academic success? A school’s ranking in the third-level feeder tables, or their consistent guiding of confident, well rounded and capable young people into self-sufficient adulthood, even if they choose an alternative path to academia?
Secondly, why should young people’s access to certain subjects be dictated by their gender? Why should boys and young men not have access to more traditionally female-oriented subjects like home economics (a subject this writer strongly feels should be on the core curriculum) while girls and young women are denied the opportunity to develop skills in subjects like technical drawing?
As regards the environment in which young people learn, suggesting that they are incapable of focusing on their education when there are people of the opposite sex in the room is a bit insulting, at best.
Ultimately, what makes a good school great is a safe, supportive and inclusive culture, combined with the relationships students have with their teachers and vice versa. And at a time when we are having serious discussions around gender equality, consent and safety, it is hard to see how segregation can be a force for good.
The debate is particularly interesting in light of the development of a brand new campus in my own town. The new St Mary’s Secondary School building is being constructed on a greenfield site in an innovative, state-of-the-art format that will accommodate up to 650 students, and is being lauded as a blueprint for the future development of secondary schools in Ireland.
I attended St Mary’s, more years ago than I care to remember, and adored it. My experience there was wonderful, due in no small part to my mostly excellent teachers, and I have the fondest of memories of it. But even at the time, it always felt like something was missing.
Between the ages of 12 and 16, I was cripplingly shy, the result of a spate of bullying, and it left me completely devoid of any of the confidence needed to socialise outside school as a young teen. I have no brothers, so opportunities to interact with boys my own age were therefore thin on the ground. I don’t think I had a normal conversation with a boy after the age of 12, until I finally found some self-assurance in Transition Year. If I’d been attending school every day alongside boys, they might not have seemed like such an alien species.
The new girls’ school in Ballina will be fantastic, but it is publicly funded, and with the increasing emphasis on inclusion and equality at a national-policy level, it seems jarring in this age that boys in the town cannot avail of these great, publicly-funded facilities too. If this bill is successful, that may well change in the not-too-distant future. It would hardly be a bad thing.