Are single-gender schools the way of the past?

While Labour prepare a new Bill banning single-gender schools, others speak out in favour of separate education

Rathdown School, an all girls private school located in Glenageary, has recently announced their plans to move to a co-educational model, allowing both boys and girls to enrol. The boarding school, which caters for students aged three to eighteen years old, announced that there will be a phased introduction of boys to the school, starting from September. Boarding will remain for girls only pending the construction of a male boarding wing.

Speaking to The Independent last month, Principal Brian Moore said the decision to go co-ed was taken to ensure the school reflected modern Ireland and to fulfil its ethos of being an inclusive and progressive school.

In Ireland, 17% of primary school children attend a single-gender school, while this figure stands at around a third for secondary school students. Ireland is one of the outliers in the European context as it has the second highest proportion of single-gender schools, falling behind Malta. France, on the other hand, made mixed gender primary schools mandatory in 1957, and by 1970, all secondary schools in Sweden were fully integrated.

The Labour Party recently put forward the Education (Admission to Schools) (Co-education) Bill 2022 proposing the abolition of same-sex schools in Ireland within the next fifteen years for secondary schools and the next ten years for primary schools. Leading the charge behind this idea is Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, TD for Dublin Bay North and Spokesperson on Education, Enterprise and Trade for the Labour Party.

“The influence and legacy of religious orders is the main reason as to why Ireland has such a high number of students enrolled in single-gender schools.”

Speaking to Trinity News, Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin explained his beliefs and ideas behind the proposed change.  When asked why Ireland is behind other European countries in terms of the number of students attending co-educational schools, Ó’Riordán explained “the influence and legacy of religious orders” is the main reason as to why Ireland has such a high number of students enrolled in a single-gender school.

Agreeing that Ireland “certainly stands out in the European context for having a disproportionate number of single gender schools”, he goes on to explain that, in the development of educational institutions in Ireland, there has been “outsourcing to patron bodies since the foundation stage and as a result of this, the vast majority of schools are still of religious patronage”.

This Bill would mandate all state-funded schools to become mixed gender. Private schools would also be required to move to co-educational in order to still receive state funding.

Of course, there are arguments against the implementation of co-educational schools. The standard arguments being that boys and girls learn differently, there is distraction from the opposite sex and that parents should have the right to choose how their child is educated. It is widely believed that boys overpower girls in the classroom and demand more attention from teachers. On the other hand girls in classrooms are also believed to have a calming, civilising effect on the boys in their class. Many parents would enrol their child in a single-gender school to prevent these distractions. Others have also pointed out feeder school lists that show the majority of the top performing schools are single gender as proof of their arguments against mixed schools.

“Single gender schools “contrive a scenario which isn’t reflective of wider society.”

However, Ó’Ríordáin points out that “co-educational schools reflect the reality of Irish society” and that single gender schools “contrive a scenario which isn’t reflective of wider society”. He asks the question “what is the benefit of this fake environment and does it serve anybody?”. Ó’Ríordáin is of the belief that a “school, as a vehicle of the State, should reflect the community that it is serving”.  Ireland has separated people, particularly students, on the basis of gender, religion and financial background however, O’Ríordáin notes that these separations “[don’t] really make sense anymore, it may have done at one point” however, it is no longer reflective of Irish society in 2022.

The Department of Education has not given sanction to a new single-gender school since 1998, so it is clear that the government is attempting to phase out single-gender schools themselves. Ó’Ríordáin explains that the Bill is trying to tackle a “legacy issue of all other schools which still are of existence”. One of the goals of the Bill is to “provide space for the conversation to take place for any sort of governmental or state intervention”. When asked if the proposed abolition will face backlash,  Ó’Ríordáin says “there may be opposition but, to be honest, the opposition is rooted in a very old-fashioned and gendered view of stereotypes. In the modern era where we are trying to promote gender equality, it’s harder to do that if we are separating young people and children”.

Trinity News spoke to students of both single-gender and co-educational schools to gain an insight into their thoughts on the proposed Bill. One student who went to an all girls school described that she “honestly really enjoyed my time at my school.”

“There is quite a nice almost sister-like bond that builds up in an all-girls school and I’m not sure that it would be as strong in a co-ed school.”

“Besides the fact that with certain things the school was a bit strict like not being allowed to wear makeup, or have a nose piercing and uniform checks otherwise, it was grand. The uniform checks were a bit intense – I remember being shouted at in front of my entire class for my skirt being too short. You’d wonder if the boys schools would have to go through stuff like that – being called up one by one and examined by the vice principal”.

However, she goes on to say that  “there is quite a nice almost sister-like bond that builds up in an all-girls school and I’m not sure that it would be as strong in a co-ed school. We could talk about anything at lunch without any fear of any boys hearing what we were talking about because they simply just weren’t there”.

A student who has recently left Rathdown secondary school states that she was “happy being in an all girls school” and would “not have gone [to Rathdown] if it was a co-ed school” at the time when she enrolled. She described the recent change to a co-educational model  that Rathdown has announced as an “interesting change”. She goes on to further explain that “I don’t think it will work for a really really long time – it will have to go through so many generations. [If I were to have children] I would not send my boys there because there are so many established all-boys schools. It will take ages to pick up”.

Another student we had spoken to had moved to a co-educational school in 5th year after previously being in an all-girls school. When asked about her time in a co-educational school she explains that “Thankfully I was a bit older when I went to a co-educational school – I moved when I was 16. I am not sure I would have been able for a co-ed school if I was younger, like from the ages of 12-14.” She explains how “boys at that age can be just plain nasty and I probably would have been even more insecure if I thought  the boys in my class were mocking me”.

“[Co-educational schools] just felt a bit more natural and helped me grow up and mature a lot”

When asked if there were any main differences from attending an all girls school to a co-educational school she explains that “it just felt a bit more natural and helped me grow up and mature a lot”. The student emphasises that “we were all so focused on the Leaving Cert and studying that there were no real big distractions. Sometimes the boys would be messing around in the back of class but at the same time, in another class the girls could be the ones chatting and laughing down the back – there was no real difference”.

When asked what should follow if the proposed Bill is approved, Ó’Ríordáin emphasises “we need a State education system- we outsource everything. There are basic things that are provided for in other European countries that aren’t available for us here”. He gives the example of school books being free in Northern Ireland.  Ó’Ríordáin explains how there “are huge amounts of financial conversation which happen between parents and schools” and instead should have “discussions about child development and learning not around fundraising”. A completely free public education system would result in these conversations about financial stress and worry being replaced with conversations of the child and their growth.

It is hard to break tradition, and single-gender schools in Ireland have been ‘the norm’ for as long as most of us can remember, so of course their proposed abolition would be faced with some hesitancy and backlash from pupils, parents and teachers. However, the Bill put forward by the Labour Party is pushing for a fairer and more equal education system for all children and young people, so the proposed change will hopefully, in time, be met with support and encouragement from the public.