Friday 19 October 2018

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.

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