Where Rathdown has gone, the rest will likely follow. The elite secondary school in Glenageary, South County Dublin — until recently a proud girls-only establishment — has done a sharp about-turn. As of September, it will admit boys.
Given that Ireland remains the European capital of single-sex education (matched, we are often reminded, only by Malta and Islamic countries in terms of the prevalence of sex-segregated education), the move passed with surprisingly little dissent.
Indeed, according to Rathdown principal Brian Moore, the move is in response to parental demand.
“Our community is telling us that they would favour a mixing of the sexes in the classes — for all the social benefits, and all the other well-publicised and well-explained reasons why it is good to mix,” he told Newstalk.
Irish parents across the country, preoccupied with concerns about the cost of filling the tank with petrol and the shopping trolley with food, would be forgiven for paying little heed to the goings on in the leafy 16-acre bastion of privilege in South County Dublin — where the parents of boarding students are charged the equivalent of a retail worker’s annual wage.
But it is fair to say that what has happened in Rathdown is part of a wider shift in values around education. And that the views and wishes expressed by parents and prospective parents of Rathdown girls (and future boys) reflect those of the public more generally.
You don’t have to look very hard to understand why the concept of single-
sex education jars in today’s Ireland. It is increasingly seen by parents as a relic of a past era, as an uncomfortable legacy of a past where sex segregation was inextricably tied up with social mores of repression and shame — a hangover from a repressive social order that we’ve been busily and efficiently dismantling.
Following several decades of social revolution in Ireland, we’ve all been caught up in the spirit of reformist zeal. It seems self-evident then, that segregated schools would be the next item on the progressive agenda.
Writing in this paper earlier this year, columnist Colin Murphy made a compelling case that single-sex schools play a role in fostering and perpetuating misogyny and gender-based violence.
This view was then echoed by Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, education spokesman for his party and himself a former teacher in an all-girls primary. He joined the debate last month, when he announced publication of a private member’s bill calling for a gradual phasing out of single-sex education over a 10-year period for primary schools, and a 15-year period for secondary schools.
He too cited "toxic masculinity” as justification for his bill.
It feels instinctively true to parents that the experience of spending the years that bridge puberty and late adolescence with scarce contact with the opposite sex might favour certain distortions of perspective amongst emerging adults.
If the opposite sex exist only as abstractions — distant figures recognised mostly by their outline — how can we learn to understand them as living, breathing human beings?
Without witnessing their strengths, failings and idiosyncrasies, is it any wonder that they become objectified and dehumanised?
Of course, toxic masculinity thrives in co-ed schools too.
Indeed, following last year’s ‘everyone’s invited’ scandal in the UK, which exposed sexual abuse in British schools, there was no shortage of commentators who advocated for a return to single-sex education to protect their daughters from a school environment that seemed saturated with porn culture.
And as to the academic benefits of one system versus another, the issue has been well studied. But it is one of those subjects where it’s not quite straightforward to parse the truth from the data.
Research findings remain conflicted, largely because it’s hard to separate the metrics of educational attainment with the inbuilt selection bias within schools.
For one thing, globally, single-sex schools are more likely to be private. And it’s hard to control for all the variables that influence educational attainment, such as parental investment and home culture.
The principal of Rathdown cited the persuasive results of research from the ERSI, which found that a school’s culture is more important than the gender of its student body in defining student outcomes. Which will no doubt go further to reassure parents.
But I’d argue that, on this issue, quibbling over data points relating to academic achievement has become an irrelevance, to even the most ambitious of Irish parents.
The increasing popularity of co-ed schools is based as much, if not more, on a gut feeling as it is on definable facts. It’s about putting faith in the idea of the kind of future and culture we hope to build for our sons and daughters. The one we hope they will build for themselves — a culture that fosters open, mature and respectful relations between boys and girls.
How can the future men and women of Ireland ever learn to live better together, if we insist on keeping them apart during their most formative years?