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Has single-sex education had its day? Jen Hogan and Finn McRedmond debate

More schools are moving towards co-education, and research suggests teenagers are in favour of it. But do they really know what’s best for them?

Finn McRedmond: No. The move towards co-ed is bad news for teenage girls

St Joseph of Cluny is the latest casualty in Ireland’s slow but inexorable march to eradicating single-sex education. The all-girls Catholic school in Dublin has announced that it will admit boys from 2025, citing the incredibly woolly and intentionally vague “demands of families and wider society” as its reason. I left my all-girls school in 2013, and only a decade later it also capitulated to these so-called “demands of wider society”. This phenomenon – increasing in pace – is not just a failure to understand the inherent value of tradition (though this is still a serious charge). It’s bad news for teenage girls.

But first, a common case for coeducational schools: it’s what the teenagers want! In fact, a recent report from the ESRI found some striking evidence. Students, whether enrolled at single-sex or co-ed school, largely favoured the idea of mixed education. And, 61 per cent of students want all schools in the country to be co-ed. Tough numbers to dispute, I suppose. It’s a particularly compelling argument because teenagers have famously always known what’s best for them.

Perhaps it is needlessly Victorian to jettison the will of teenagers entirely. But there are, of course, loads of things we do not let them do no matter how much they want to – drinking, smoking, driving among the more obvious candidates. A serious and credible education policy would prioritise first the will of the schools and then the desires of the parents. The 2022 proposal from the Irish Labour Party – that would see all single-sex primary schools turn coeducational within ten years, and at secondary level within 15 years – is a mode of top-down illiberalism any sane society ought to resist.

Proponents for mixed schooling often make a tenuous appeal to the importance of socialising the genders from an early age. If men and women need to spend their entire life interacting why not teach them the basic principles early on? School is more than academic achievement, it’s a cultural development programme, society writ large benefits when teenage boys and teenage girls know how to get along, so the argument goes.

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The best I can do is offer a positive case via the arguments of my school friends, all of whom were aligned on the benefit of their single-sex education

—  Finn McRedmond

It’s thoroughly unconvincing. Thirty per cent of boys attend single sex secondary school and 38 per cent of girls. In fact, outside the Arab world Ireland has one of the highest proportion of single-sex schools in the world. Of course, this is among the vestiges of a once highly religious and conservative society. But no matter the reason, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has kind of worked. Co-ed schools in Ireland are a relatively new invention and frankly, the country is not overrun by maladjusted weirdos (certainly no more than the majority co-educated Britain, for example). It’s wrong to suggest that at least a third of Irish adults are so hobbled by the facts of their teenage education that they do not know how to move through a non-gender segregated world like a normal person. The case for single-sex is entirely self-sustaining and self-evident.

But the best I can do is offer a positive case via the arguments of my schoolfriends, all of whom agreed on the benefit of their single-sex education. It encouraged intellectual ambition that a mixed environment may have beaten out of them; gave license for self-expression that wasn’t forced into shape by the demands of teenage boys around them; provided a safe environment for all the difficulties of female adolescence without the anxiety-inducing gaze of the other sex. Who would take this away from teenage girls?

So in this particular way I cannot avoid the conclusion that single-sex education – at least for girls – is the radical act. And the slow descent into a monoculture of co-ed schools is a rather depressing and retrograde idea.

Jen Hogan: Yes. Single-sex education is an unnatural state in which to raise and educate children

I wasn’t particularly keen on boys in primary school. For one they’d snap my bra strap in sixth class when I’d walk and teased me mercilessly about not having anything to put into that same bra. For another, I spent far too much time sitting at a table with the ones who were always in trouble in class. I earned my place at that table by being giddy and talkative myself. Boys were trouble. I needed to behave less like them.

When the time for secondary school came, my parents decided an all-girls school was the best thing for me and my sisters. Less distraction, they figured. Amazingly, I managed to be equally giddy and talkative in class there. But not distracted by teenage hormones at least. Or by Physics, because the subject wasn’t an option that year. Or by any understanding of boys whatsoever.

And so when I went to college and met some boys I thought “what a curious sort you are”. And after some time spent acclimatising to these curious sorts, I learned that boys and girls could indeed be educated together, just as they could live together and work together. And so the world goes.

I’ve always thought the idea of single-sex schools was bizarre. An unnatural state in which to raise and educate children. It’s divisive by nature, separating children unnecessarily and facilitating the reinforcement of gender stereotypes by virtue of those who surround them.

I don’t just mean academically. Subject choices may have improved largely across the board. But somewhere, in the midst of a very important campaign to ensure girls know that they can be anything they want to be, we forgot to tell boys the same thing. I don’t believe single-sex schools are a good idea for either gender. But they hold boys back in a far different way.

Life can be complicated when you’re a child or teenager trying to find your way in the world. It can be even more complicated if you don’t fit the box of what a girl should be, or how she should behave, what she should like, or what she should aspire to be. The exact same is true of boys. But stepping outside the box is often more acceptable for girls. A girl might be called a tomboy if her interests, behaviour or aspirations are considered more “boy-like” – an affectionate term at worst. A boy who steps outside the box of societal expectations of boys is often subjected to slurs. And so it’s easier to conform, and a far harder experience if you don’t.

Nobody benefits from being educated in an environment where only one sex’s perspective contributes to the classroom conversation

—  Jen Hogan

And what do single-sex schools do except perpetuate rigid societal expectations – otherwise why would they exist at all? If we don’t think all boys are essentially the same as one another, and all girls are identical too, then why have schools that cater for children based on their sex alone?

Despite what you might conclude, all seven of my children went and go to their respective single-sex schools, at both primary and secondary level – not out of my desire to have them educated separately, but because our local schools are single-sex schools. Over the course of almost 20 years of being a parent, I’ve spoken to countless others whose children, like mine, mostly happily ran into primary school every day. But I’ve yet to speak to a single one who thought it was important that their sons and daughters went to two separate schools. Or that their children from all-boy or all-girl families should continue in a single-sex setting, where boys and girls didn’t learn to play together. Nobody benefits from being educated in an environment where only one sex’s perspective contributes to the classroom conversation. Equality has more opportunity to flourish when we know each other better.

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