Secret Teacher: It's beyond time to ditch single-sex schools

"Irish people have been warned against sex for generations, so our obsession is natural. Sex was that enticing, but deadly, elephant in the room, like the giant red button poor Dougal in Father Ted can’t help but press."
Secret Teacher: It's beyond time to ditch single-sex schools

Secret Teacher: 'On his Desert Island Discs episode, Russell T Davies, creator of It's a Sin, recalls his father, head of the Swansea rugby club, taking a “skinny gay boy” (as he describes himself) to one side, to have a few words about his lack of interest in the sport. He said he couldn't care less, and encouraged him to do something he loved.'

On his Desert Island Discs episode, Russell T Davies recalls his father, head of the Swansea rugby club, taking a “skinny gay boy” (as he describes himself) to one side, to have a few words about his lack of interest in the sport.

What did he say? That he couldn’t care less, so long as he did whatever he wanted to do. Russell T Davies followed through, becoming the screenwriter who stopped us in our tracks this year with It’s A Sin. What a father!

Just imagine if we had the same freedom at the heart of our education system. Imagine what beauty we might unlock in our children. I think it’s possible, now we’re reconsidering everything after Covid-19. But we’d have to get over our obsession with sex and bodies first.

It’s beyond time to ditch single-sex schools. Irish people have been warned against sex for generations, so our obsession is natural. Sex was that enticing, but deadly, elephant in the room, like the giant red button poor Dougal in Father Ted can’t help but press.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in how we continue to organise schools. I can still remember the feeling of moving against a sea of boys in my school uniform, wearing a blue school skirt, head down, a tide of black blazers rolling against me. I felt simultaneously excited and terrified. I was barely past puberty, and society was adamant that I was a girl, dressed as a girl, and that these were boys, dressed as boys.

Boys were the ‘other.’ We girls stood in terror if one came over and asked us to ‘shift’ his friend. Walking away with one, holding his hand maybe, you felt like you were being taken to another country where anything might happen.

What absolute and avoidable nonsense.

According to data from an international assessment (TIMSS) in 2015, in 60% of higher-earning countries, less than 5% of primary schools are single-sex. Apart from Muslim countries, Ireland has the second-highest instance of single-sex schooling. Only Malta trumps us.

In Ireland, one-third of our second-level schools are single-sex. That’s 125,000 students experiencing their most formative years in a setting that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the outside world.

The only defense of this would be a proven increase in learning. Sadly, the data on this is inconclusive. From the same report: “A meta-analysis of 184 studies from 21 countries found that, while some showed modest learning outcome benefits of gender segregation, higher-quality research that adjusted for confounding factors showed little to no benefit and a slight negative effect on female education aspiration.”

Having gone to an all-girl school, I can attest to this ‘slight negative.’ In my time, if you were perceived as ‘bright’, you studied Latin, and if you weren’t, you studied home economics. From the boys’ community school near where I lived, I overheard mutterings of subjects like woodwork and technology.

I looked up the same two schools today. The subject options haven’t changed, except Latin has been dropped. In Ireland, our subject choices are still determined by the shape of our bodies.

If we look at Irish education solely in terms of academic achievement, the status quo seems more advantageous to girls than boys. According to David McWilliams, a “female-led economy” is on its way and by 2030, there will be more female millionaires in the world than male.

Girls are now more likely to have a third-level education than boys. They continue to outperform boys in the Leaving Cert.

Of course, their success seems to slow down the higher they go. And the gender pay gap still looms large. And women in Ireland are still the victims of horrendous male violence. As are Irish children.

But men are losing out, too. As a society, we still view success in monetary terms. Our statistics always focus on the success of getting girls into traditionally masculine roles and subject areas like science and maths, but we don’t celebrate its opposite, do we?

We don’t write articles about boys becoming nurses, teachers, and carers; perhaps lower-paid, but nonetheless essential, roles and roles that can lead to higher levels of happiness, healthiness, and personal fulfillment.

We’ve broadened access to some roles while shrinking others. In that gap lies condemnation. And boys hear it. An equal society can’t just be about asking girls to be more like boys. It must be about individuation, regardless of sex and gender. And that can only happen in a co-educational setting, where the options are wide-ranging and the expectations are set by the individuals themselves, not by their physiology.

All young people are hurt by being separated, as it perpetuates stereotypes and affects relationships. Boys are still far more likely to experience male violence and to commit suicide. Indeed, a study in the UK even showed a disproportionately higher rate of marital breakdown from men in their 40s who had attended all-boys’ schools. It makes sense. The data just backs it up.

We need to stop caring who wears a skirt to school and who doesn’t. We need young people to understand and respect one another. Getting them in the same room is a good place to start.

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