Thursday 12 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: Is it time for us to do away with single-sex schooling?

Why do we teach young boys that women are a different species and thus create hothouses for so-called toxic masculinity, asks Brendan O'Connor

Separate world: A third of Irish secondary schools are single-sex. Photo: Getty Images
Separate world: A third of Irish secondary schools are single-sex. Photo: Getty Images
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Towards the end of sixth year, for some reason, a weird dynamic took hold in our class. As I remember it, there was an odd atmosphere anyway in those final weeks. Courses had been taught and we wanted to be at home studying for our Leaving Cert. There was a certain arrogance there too. We were the top streamed class and we were nearly finished school forever. They had nothing more to teach us, and we thought we were men now and not boys. We weren't afraid of them anymore. So if we were left alone at all, between classes or whatever, we would start roaring and banging our desks until someone came.

As I remember it, most people joined in because it only worked if we all did it. I think it may have started as a form of protest to encourage them to send us home to study. But then it just turned into some kind of letting off of steam. Looking back now, it was fairly ridiculous behaviour for what were ostensibly intelligent, well-bred boys who had plenty of opportunities in life. But then, when a pack mentality takes hold among teenage boys, people do stupid stuff they wouldn't necessarily normally do.

My school, Colaiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Cork, was a great school. Academically and sportswise it would have been a match for even the fee-paying schools in town. In terms of extracurricular activities it was better than most. One thing that I now realise was unusual about it was that there were no girls in the school. This was regarded as perfectly normal at the time, and it still is in schools all over the country. But when I think about it now I realise it was not normal at all. The odd females who were allowed into this bastion of maleness were teachers. There would have been a tendency to regard them as weaker and thus to be exploited with bad behaviour, or as objects to develop weird crushes on. And of course we were afraid of them too. After all, most of us had spent our 14 years in school among boys and men. The subliminal message was sent constantly that girls and women were a different species. There was little feminine influence in our day-to-day affairs. It was masculinity unchecked, and that pack mentality developed in a lot of situations.

I look back now and I realise that it must have been very hard to be different in that homogeneous environment. For example, we didn't understand much about homosexuality then, we largely assumed everyone was straight. The odd guy who seemed weak or effeminate or who didn't like the locker room or who wasn't into sport, might be teased by some as a "faggot". And others might have gone along with this. I don't think anyone ever thought about what that word really meant. I would have been called a faggot myself on the odd occasion. But it didn't cut me the way it presumably would if I was trying to come to terms with my sexuality, a sexuality that was more or less verboten or at least unspoken in this environment.

In terms of girls, when we started to get out a bit more and to meet them, there would have been a tendency to see them, perhaps not quite as purely sex objects, but mainly as people to potentially kiss or go out with - not as friends. Even when we got to college, it would take time to learn to build normal friendships with girls, to see them as being just other people. Imagine that. Imagine being nearly 20 and having gone through puberty and nearly being an adult before you fully understand that women are just people too, not another species. And I look at my life now and my female friends and their value to me and I think how daft it all was. Why were we held back like that for so long?

There is general agreement now that homogeneity in any organisation is not a good thing. Diversity makes for more effective, innovative and balanced organisations. It goes without saying. Socially, men-only clubs are generally agreed to be a bad thing now. Indeed we saw two weeks ago how men-only events can bring out the worst in men. Homogeneity is not just wrong. It doesn't work very well either.

It is also generally agreed that many men these days have a pretty bad attitude to women. This can manifest itself in anything from what Donald Trump would call "locker room talk" to much, much worse behaviour. Some people even argue that masculinity is toxic. Yet in a third of our secondary schools in this country we essentially create hothouses for toxic masculinity, where we segregate boys away on their own with no female energy - or female people. While the brotherhood that is created in boys' schools and among male sports teams is much celebrated in our culture, there is no doubt that there is a darker side to the dynamics that develop between packs of men who spend too much time together.

Ways of viewing women and ways of talking about them can fester in these environments, and even decent guys can go along with it because it can be difficult not to fit in. And boys can tend to egg each other on in those toxic macho ways, and make appalling things seem acceptable and the norm. I'm not suggesting this happens wherever men gather and bond. But we know, more and more, that it happens a lot.

Much of the research into single-sex education has centred on academic achievement. Generally it is accepted that girls do better in an all-girls environment while boys do better in a mixed environment. This would feed into some probably sexist notion that girls are swottier and thrive academically when they are not distracted by boys, and also that when there are girls in the class they create a scholarly atmosphere that even the boys benefit from.

It should be said that the research as a whole is regarded by many as inconclusive. Besides which, there is surely a more important measure now on which to judge single-sex education. In the 21st Century, and at this particular moment in history, the kind of people schools are producing is far more important than academic achievement. And it is clear that many schools are producing many boys and men who have serious problems in how they relate to women. The influential journal Science noted seven years ago that "there is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students' academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimises institutional sexism".

Indeed the whole notion of segregating children by sex is based on outdated religious notions or else on some idea that girls and boys are two different species when it comes to learning and their brains. We might as well run schools based on phrenology. In the era of #Metoo and #Timesup, it's incredible that these notions still hold sway. The Swedes, our much cited role models in how to run the perfect liberal society, got rid of single-sex education 40 years ago.

It is perhaps telling that while Ireland has higher levels of single-sex schooling than most Western countries, another part of the world where it is particularly popular is in Muslim countries.

You'd like to think that most of us who went to single sex-schools turned out OK, but there is no doubt that there is a strain of a particular kind of sexism and nastiness that can sometimes be seen in Irish business, sporting and general life, that has its roots partly at least in teaching boys in segregated schools that women are a different species.

Sunday Independent

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