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Q&A: Do changes at Joey’s show single-sex schools are on the way out in Dublin?


Alexandra Dunae (Deputy Principal) and Sean Stack (Principal) at St Josephs CBS, Fairview. Pic: Gerry Mooney

Alexandra Dunae (Deputy Principal) and Sean Stack (Principal) at St Josephs CBS, Fairview. Pic: Gerry Mooney

Alexandra Dunae (Deputy Principal) and Sean Stack (Principal) at St Josephs CBS, Fairview. Pic: Gerry Mooney

As the well-known Fairview school announces it will admit girls for the first time next year, it seems parents want more mixed classrooms – but resistance from some schools means the debate is far from over

So why do developments at a famous Dublin school suggest that mixed-gender education is the way of the future?

Because St Joseph’s in Fairview (popularly known as Joey’s) has announced that from September 2023, it will admit girls for the first time in its 134-year history. Following a consultation process, the school – whose past pupils include Charlie Haughey, Brendan Gleeson and many Dublin GAA stars – is set to become co-educational.

“St Joseph’s has a strong tradition of excellence alongside evolution,” says principal Séan Stack, “and these changes allow us to be an early adopter to social needs.” As his comments suggest, Irish parents increasingly want mixed classrooms for their children – but firm resistance from some single-sex schools means this debate is far from over.

How does Ireland compare to other countries on this issue?

We’re a bit of an outlier. Around a third of the country’s 730 secondary schools are boys or girls-only, along with 17pc of our 3,241 primary schools. Those are the second-highest rates in Europe, behind only Malta.

The main reason is historical. When the Irish Free State was set up a century ago, education was mostly left in the hands of priests and nuns. Those schools often broke down on gender lines, due to the widespread belief that boys and girls should be taught different things about their future roles in society.

Today, attitudes are obviously very different and the Department of Education has not approved a new single-sex school since 1998. Just as 88pc of Irish primary schools have a Catholic patron, however, our education system is still partly shaped by that historical legacy.

What are the main arguments for teaching boys and girls together?

Advocates say schools should reflect the communities outside their gates. They believe it’s artificial to separate males and females in the classroom when we don’t have single-sex creches, universities or workplaces.

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Perhaps most seriously, some fear that keeping boys apart from girls during their formative years can build up a macho culture and lead to violence against women. According to an influential 2011 American study called ‘The Pseudoscience of Single-Sex Schooling’ published in the journal Science, “there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimises institutional sexism”.

So what’s the case against?

That boys learn differently from girls and both genders will do better if they’re not distracted by each other. In terms of academic performance, Ireland’s top five schools are all single-sex and only two of the top 10 admit boys and girls.

On a more anecdotal level, some teachers argue that boys can dominate girls in a mixed environment and sexual harassment becomes a problem when puberty arrives.

“There’s not the social pressure [on girls] to be quiet in [a single-sex class],” claims Loren Bridge, head of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools in Australasia.

“The conversation becomes about learning, not being liked,” she said. “They’re not putting on make-up to go to school… it ends in a better life outcome.”

What does the scientific research tell us?

Frustratingly, there’s no consensus despite many studies from all over the world. While some Irish single-sex schools produce impressive exam results, that may be because they’re concentrated in wealthier areas where parents can give their children special advantages.

The most recent major research project here was carried out by Professor Emer Smyth from the Economic and Social Research Institute in 2015.

“When we adjusted for social class and prior ability, we found no significant difference in the academic outcomes of students from single-sex and co-ed schools, in either the Junior or Leaving Cert,” Ms Smyth told The Irish Times. “There was far greater variation between schools of different levels of advantage – that’s the real issue.”

How do Irish politicians feel about it?

Some say the Government should be actively encouraging Ireland’s drift away from single-sex schools. Last February, Labour’s education spokesman Aodhán Ó Riordáin introduced a bill that could end them altogether.

Under his plan, all primary schools would have to become mixed-gender within 10 years and all secondary schools within 15 years – or lose their State funding.

“What we’re trying to do is have both genders understand each other better,” Ó Riordáin said, suggesting that single-sex education is a factor in domestic violence and assaults against women. “Nothing can convince me that [it] isn’t part of the problem,” he said.

Any such move would be strongly resisted by some schools, however, and Education Minister Norma Foley shows no sign of wanting to do anything so radical. Speaking at an Oireachtas committee last month, the minister said she would not support Labour’s bill because parents should “have every possible benefit of choice available”.

Aren’t new ideas about gender prompting some schools to change their environments anyway?

Yes, but there are usually strong disagreements over those moves too. Last year the Department of Education published guidelines for gender-neutral bathrooms in schools, saying they “must adapt to modern changing needs”.

Fine Gael senator Regina Doherty recently summed up the conflicted feelings that many parents have. “If I had a magic wand, every school would have to have both sexes,” she told an Oireachtas committee.

At the same time, Doherty said her daughters at their co-educational school wouldn’t be continuing with metalwork and woodwork because “the class is male toxic”.

Finally, won’t the choices that parents make eventually settle this question once and for all?

Perhaps, but it could take a long time. Last February an opinion poll for Thejournal.ie found that 58pc of people think single-sex schools should be phased out, 36pc want to keep them and the rest are undecided.

That broadly reflects the experience of institutions such as Joey’s, who have carefully consulted local communities before throwing their doors open to all. For now, the Government is clearly taking a hands-off approach – so every parent will just have to work out the right answer for themselves.