School days and that question of sex …



Should girls and boys always be educated together? With so many controversies going on the proposed bill by the Labour Party that all Government funded schools in the 26 counties should be co-ed in future has created barely a ripple.

Around 17% of primary schools are single sex and a third of secondary schools currently. If passed, the bill would make the change to same sex within 10 years for primary school and 15 for secondary schools. And unless single sex private schools make the change they would no longer qualify for Government funding. There are 51 fee-paying secondary schools and 38 fee- paying primary schools (up 30% in the last 10 years.)

The argument in favour of change is that the population of schools should reflect society in general. Labour’s spokesman on Education and Enterprise Aodhan O’Riordain has claimed that single sex education is a contributory factor to toxic masculinity and to the increase in domestic violence in Ireland and that issues of sexual inequality affecting women are better tackled in co-ed schools.

Previous research suggests that boys generally do better in co-ed schools, where the presence of girls plays down misogynism and softens macho culture. In an all-boys situation, pupils can suffer from a cult of hyper-masculinity. (Perhaps this is what has Boris Johnston and other Old Etonians in his Cabinet the way they are!)

Also, the valorising of games-playing ‘jocks’ doesn’t do much for boys who are more academic, creative or sensitive. Girls generally achieve better and are more confident in single sex schools perhaps because they avoid competing with boys in a co-ed situation.

I am inclined, though, to agree with research by the ESRI, which found that differences in how well pupils did academically had more to do with individual schools than with whether or not they were co-ed. The only noticeable finding in the research was that girls behaved better in co-eds.

Back in the day, I went to a girls-only school in Belfast, and at the time I was glad I did. It was difficult enough trying to fit in with various cliques, (sporty, popular, pretty or brainy) without complicating the picture with boys. The downside though was the lack of opportunity to meet the opposite sex, the only options being to join a tennis club, (not for me) or go to hops where after two dances a lad would ask you to go outside the dance hall where he would become like octopus with hands everywhere.

Now though, I think differently. Is it not harder to have sexist attitudes in a mixed situation? Also, these days, schools face more complex issues which need to be addressed around inclusivity and acceptance of diversity: nationality, colour and gender identity around LGBTQ. Also, social media has added another influential layer to the way that pupils relate to each other too.

One objection to the bill would be that it would remove choice for parents who may feel that a particular child would be more suited to a single sex school with a certain ethos. There is also the question of how the change would work out in practice, particularly in single sex private schools with long-standing reputations: would boys go to Alexandra girls’ college for instance or would girls join Blackrock College?

My granddaughters had differing experiences. One, who went to a co-ed school, thought it was unwise to be separated, when, together, pupils could develop their own ideas about the opposite sex and what they might want from a partner in future. And that in girls’ schools, pupils tended to become ‘boy mad’, where the other sex became mysterious because you never saw them.

An experiment in where classes were separate for core subjects during third year made classes less stressful during the awkward puberty stage and afterwards the boys who had matured were more respectful towards the girls.

My granddaughter’s boyfriend found the ‘military’ fashion in which his boys’ school was run ,and the overly testosterone-filled classrooms, somewhat off-putting.

In her girls’ school, granddaughter No. 2 achieved well academically but experienced problems with friendships and ‘bitchiness’, especially over boys.

Just a few opinions but it sounds as though co-ed scored best, not necessarily for marks but for relationships.

As Albert Einstein said about education: ”II is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

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