Elaine Loughlin: Single-sex education not conducive to a more equal, inclusive society – Irish Examiner

Elaine Loughlin: If we are really to create a more equal and inclusive society, we need to look at what type of schools we send our children to school and not just what they are taught.
Imagine the scenario: A supermarket chain announces it is bringing a new concept to towns and cities.
Instead of opening one store, ‘segregated shopping’ will see two almost identical units built right next to each other.
The first, for male customers only, stocks all the basic grocery essentials along with a few stereotypical ‘macho’ items like DIY kits and barbecue coal.
The other women-only store, again stocks everything that goes into the weekly food basket, but of course special offers, not available in the man-only shop, would include smelly candles, nappies, baby food and maybe a kitchen sink.
Gender-based grocery shopping is so bonkers it’s never going to take off. Yet a significant chunk of our education system involves separating children and young adults on the basis of their sex.
Recent events have opened up a national discussion around gender-based violence and the treatment of women in society, with many pointing to the significant reform needed in how we educate our young people.
This has mainly been focused, however, on the requirement to address the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum and has ignored what Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin describes as the “elephant in the room”.
One in three second-level pupils today sit in classrooms that are either made up of all boys or all girls.
Writing in this paper recently, Colm O’Connor, principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School argued that having conversations on consent, body image, violence, and sexuality will have limited impact if students are segregated according to sex and cannot look each other in the eye or hear each other’s voices as equal human beings.

“I’ve worked in both single-sex and mixed systems for about a decade each, and there is no comparison. Others may disagree, but I believe that segregating students is dehumanising and prevents the development of empathy and shared understanding.”
Mr Ó Ríordáin, has also questioned how effective a new curriculum that would examine gender stereotypes, consent and sexuality could possibly be if it is taught in a “fake environment”.
“The first time that any average boy or girl becomes very aware of their gender is when they attend your average Irish primary or secondary school, because while it’s a minority of primary school children and it’s a sizeable minority of secondary school children, it’s still a thing. I think we are doing a disservice to them by not talking about it.
“It’s something we’re going to have to have a chat because if anyone went to set up a gender-based creche we would think they were mad, or if a third-level institution was all female or male, people would think it was totally backward and weird. But yet after creche and before university, for those 14 or 15 years it seems to be okay.”
While glaringly obvious, Mr Ó Ríordáin says it’s an issue that is very hard to address, as parents have very deeply held views on the matter.
While tradition and family ties continue to ensure immense loyalty to institutions like ‘the Pres’ and ‘the Christians’, should parents now be questioning what impact this emotional attachment is having on their children?
Sex-segregated schools do not reflect life outside their walls and limit students who don’t fit the gender binary.
Single-sex schools hark back to the days of a church-controlled Ireland, an Ireland which banned contraception and gay relationships, and introduced the marriage bar. It was an Ireland where socialising involved dance halls filled with men lined up along one wall and women on the other.
It is not surprising then, apart from Muslim countries, that Ireland has the second-highest instance of single-sex schooling, according the the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report, published by Unesco. The only country with a greater percentage of students in single-sex education is Malta, which also has a history of Church involvement in education.
At a government level, any changes to the structure of education in this country have mainly been focused, with limited success, on the divestment of schools from the Church.
Citing a “structural barrier in the system that wouldn’t be there in many other countries,” former education minister Richard Bruton says the patronage model has stymied change, both in relation to creating more co-ed schools and increasing the number of multi-denominational schools.
A Department of Education spokesperson said the decision-making authority in respect of the status of existing schools, including whether they are single sex or co-educational, belongs to the patron, subject to the agreement of the department.
However, where possible, there has been a move to make any new schools co-educational, as they “provide greater flexibility than single-sex schools in terms of meeting demographic and school accommodation requirements in an area”, according to the department.
Education outcomes for boys and girls are often referenced by those in favour of retaining single-sex schools. But the evidence is at best inconclusive.
A 2014 report published by the America Psychological Association, which analysed 184 studies of more than 1.6m students from around the world, found single-sex education does not educate girls and boys any better than co-ed schools.
Proponents of single-sex schools argue that separating boys and girls increases students’ achievement and academic interest”, said author Janet Shibley Hyde, of University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
“Our comprehensive analysis of the data shows that these advantages are trivial and, in many cases, nonexistent.” 
Research carried out by NUI Maynooth in 2012 provided “tentative evidence” that boys in single-sex schools are more likely to achieve high maths scores than their counterparts in coeducational schools, but there was little evidence of a similar effect for girls. “Exploring the mechanisms underlying this finding is an interesting avenue for further research,” the report concluded.
In a 2020 study, David Byrne and Aiden Carthy of TU Dublin argued that sex segregation may result in girls being labelled with a victim-identity, which may potentially contribute to an acceptance of their perceived powerlessness in the face of boys’ dominance.
They found that segregation can have “deleterious outcomes for female students and may reify the identity of young girls as ‘weaker than’, or ‘needing protection from’, young boys”.
Can we allow a country where women still feel they must be protected from the other 50% of the population?
If we are really to create a more equal and inclusive society, we need to look at what type of schools we send our children to school and not just what they are taught.
The Week Ahead
With no final decision yet made on the 2022 State examinations, Sinn Féin is to bring forward a motion calling for a hybrid Leaving Certificate again this year. The Education Committee will also be discussing the wider issue of Leaving Cert reform.
Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien will be up before the Dáil at 7.30pm – expect questions on his proposals to tackle vacant and derelict properties, social housing and the building projections for this year.
In the Upper House, senators will discuss climate and farming.
Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly has drafted legislation that would give survivors of domestic violence paid leave. Her Organisation of Working Time (Domestic Violence Leave) Bill would give survivors a statutory entitlement to 10 days’ paid leave and will be discussed at the Committee for Children and Equality. It is among 30 committee meetings taking place this week.

The Labour party has a motion on the cost of living due to be debated from 10am before Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil at 12pm. There will be statements on youth mental health in the afternoon.
After reporting a record-breaking year last year, the IDA will brief the Enterprise, Trade and Employment Committee on its strategy, targets and projections.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is up for an early morning grilling in the Dáil from 9am. In the afternoon, there will be questions and answers on the National Broadband Plan.
The IFA will hold its AGM in Dublin’s Mansion House with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue due to brief the meeting of farmers.
Back In The Day
January 26: JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World sparked a riot in the audience when it was first performed at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Days later, when a number of men came before court, WB Yeats as a witness stated that from the first rise of the curtain there was an obviously an organised attempt to prevent the play from being heard. “I did not hear six consecutive lines of the play last night owing it to noise,” he told the court, pointing to the booing, stamping and shouting of the crowd.
January 25: The Government descended into chaos over allegations that European commissioner Pádraig Flynn received a £50,000 donation 10 years previously and that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern knew about it. In Brussels, a “defiant” Mr Flynn said he would not be resigning: “It is business as usual, I have very important work to do in the coming weeks and months.”
January 26: Micheál Martin was elected leader of Fianna Fáil after the resignation of Brian Cowen. The new leader, who found himself having to appoint a new frontbench, deputy leader and director of elections, began with an apology. “I am sorry for the mistakes we have made as a party and that I made as a minister,” he said.

January 30: The British Army killed 13 civil rights demonstrators in Derry in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The words of Fr Edward Daly, a Bogside parish priest were carried on the front page of the Cork Examiner: “The British Army should hang its head in shame after today’s disgusting violence. They shot indiscriminately and everywhere around them without any provocation.”
European Flag
There is still some doubt about the exact origin of the design for the European flag with a number of names being put forward over the years.
One such name is that of Gerard Slevin, who was born in Cork in 1919 and was chief herald of Ireland from 1954 to 1981. Invited by the Council of Europe to serve on an ad-hoc committee to propose designs for the flag, it has been claimed that Mr Slevin conceived and promoted the circle of stars on the blue background that we all can identify today.
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