Same-Sex Schools: A Thing of the Past?

Peter McNamara

Did you attend a same-sex school? Reflecting on those days, you might carry warm memories of semi-cloistered sisterhood and brotherhood. Perhaps you thrived in an atmosphere of focus, fun, and privacy, among your own kind. On the other hand, all these years later, you might still find yourself dismayed by the opposite sex, those inscrutable others that you never mixed with in your formative years. It begs the question: would you choose to give a child the same sort of experience today? Would you send them to a same-sex school in 2022?
With all that in mind, it might relieve or alarm you to know that this February the Irish Labour Party tabled a bill to end single-sex schools in the Republic of Ireland. They aim to make every primary school co-education within 10 years, and to do the same at second-level within 15. The party says the bill is needed amid “the wider discussion about gender equality” and argues it is already “de facto” policy because the Department of Education has not sanctioned a new single-sex school since 1998.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of single-sex education outside the Arab world, with 17% of our primary school children attending single sex education, and one-third of secondary schools being single-sex. Senator Aoidhain Ó Ríordáin, Labour’s education spokesperson, and himself a former principal of an all-girls primary school, believes his party’s bill is key to moving with the times.
According to the senator, efforts to promote consent and tackle “toxic masculinity” made more sense when boys and girls were educated together. In response to those who say there are pros and cons to the same-sex approach to education, O’Riordan states that arguments made that girls tend to do better when educated separately from boys “don’t stand up to modern analysis” and have been “debunked” by the ESRI a number of years ago.

Time for a History Lesson

Ireland’s high proportion of single-sex schools, when compared with other countries, is a legacy of the denominational control of the education system. Having won an independent Ireland, but one that was almost bankrupt, then leader Eamon deValera looked to the Catholic Church for moral support and – even more crucially – for money.
The fledgling Irish State needed to establish its own institutions, differently and separately from the former British colonisers. As such, deValera gave the men-in-black a remit to establish schools, hospitals, and other ‘welfare’ institutions, like laundries, mother and baby homes, and industrial schools. The nation traded one overlord for another.
Although deValera was a devout Catholic, with strong views on the role of women in the home, his decisions can be seen as the continuation of a trend in Irish society.
According to Irish academic Tom Inglis, beliefs about the differences between the sexes, the fair female and mighty male, spread into Irish society in the aftermath of the famine. In pre-famine Ireland, there was less distinction between a man’s and a woman’s proper work– many women worked the land as hard as men. In the aftermath of the Great Hunger, things changed quickly. Boys and girls were soon believed to be fundamentally at odds – and a moral and sexual hazard to each other.
This new value system was a strategy of a new class of tenant farmers that emerged in the social space between the peasantry and the Protestant ascendancy class.
The notion that Ireland was a country of virtuous virgins, chaste mothers, and abstemious fathers was mythical.
But the myth became central to the dominant ideology of the new class, and this “imagined community” served to perpetuate the interests of its members. Inglis points out that Catholic Ireland was not unique when it came to sexual prudery. It was part of a Victorian mentality that had also spread through Protestant Britain and America. According to that writer, however, what set Ireland apart was how deeply Victorian attitudes and practices penetrated into the Irish body and soul, and how long these attitudes and practices lasted.
The obsession with sexual purity was connected to both cultural and material interests. For one thing, Catholics were trying to attain a symbolic victory over their Protestant English colonisers by demonstrating their moral superiority. Added to this, people promoted new views around sexual purity to help maintain the living standards of farmers. Inheritance was the key issue – instead of parcelling the land to their various children, girls and boys, fathers gave it all to the most eligible male. It was because these struggles for symbolic and economic power took place in and through the Catholic church that this institution developed its monopoly position in the fields of family life, health, education, and social welfare. In Britain and America, opposition to Victorian prudery emerged as soon as it became dominant. In Ireland’s case, however, the crucial role of the Catholic church in the establishment and modernization of the Irish state meant that Victorian morality remained dominant here until late in the twentieth century.
And we’re still untangling vestiges of its once-monolithic position. Hence the position we find ourselves in today.

Now for Science – What Modern Studies Show

One of the arguments in favour of retaining singlesex schools has been their superior academic performance. However, speaking to The Irish Times, Prof Emer Smyth of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said the most recent reviews of Irish research have shown “very little consensus” on whether single sex education leads to better outcomes for girls or boys.
According to Professsor Smyth, far from being distracted or discouraged by the opposite sex, the main thing affecting the performance of children in schools is their economic background.
On average, she said, “single-sex schools are more middle-class in intake and tend to draw students of higher initial ability. When we adjusted for social class and prior ability we found no significant different in the academic outcomes of students from single-sex and co-ed schools, in either the Junior or Leaving Cert. There was far greater variation between schools of different levels of advantage – that’s the real issue.”

Australia is another country with a high proportion of same-sex schools. But changes there are already having positive results. Armidale School has a 120 year tradition of teaching boys exclusively on its grounds in the New England tablelands of New South Wales – or it did, until 2016. According to The Guardian it was a financial imperative that prompted the move; the school wanted to grow. When consulting parents and community, headmaster Murray Guest and the school insisted it would be introducing co-education without undermining culture and tradition. But they were wrong: culture did change.
“The social environment is a better one now than it was before,” says the headmaster. In 2016 he did not expect to see the strength of benefits of changing to co-ed as he has. “The interaction between boys and girls isolates some of the less desirable aspects of both. So the very macho is downplayed, while at the same time girls are encouraged to be interacting with boys and breaking out of the girls being girls mould.”
Back at home, opinion is divided among school principals over whether single or mixed-gender schools are best for students.
Speaking to The Irish Times, Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College, an all girls secondary school in south Co Dublin, said single-sex girls schools allow students to have a “safe space” in which to express themselves through drama, speech or music. However, Aaron Wolfe, principal of Coláiste Éamann Rís – which switched from boy-only to co-ed in 2019 – said it has been the best move they ever made. “Boys and girls have a better understanding of each other. It’s how college is; it’s how society is.”
Aoidhain Ó Ríordáin, the Labour Senator and former principal, says that schools should be “reflective of wider society” and argues that “we don’t have single-sex creches, we don’t have single-sex universities.” “I think if we’re trying to tackle some of the issues in our society that affect women quite profoundly, we are probably going to be more successful doing that in the multigendered scenario,” he adds.

School Debate – Using Girlsto Improve Boys?
Although momentum appears to be behind a move to end single-sex schools in Ireland, it can be instructive to listen to opposing views on the matter. Speaking to The Guardian, Loren Bridge, the chief executive of the Alliance of Girls Schools Australia, says that there is plenty of evidence to show academic, social and emotional benefits of single-sex schooling, particularly for girls.
She says the trend of single sex schools, like the Armidale School of New South Wales, becoming co-ed is in fact the movement of boys schools to co-ed. “It’s basically a boys school with girls in it. And the girls are there to help socialise the boys.”
A recent study from the University of Queensland found that girls leaving single-sex schools were on average more confident than those leaving co-ed schools. Accordingly, in a girls’ school, Loren Bridge argues, “there’s not the social pressure to be quiet in class. The conversation becomes about learning, not being liked. They’re not putting on make-up to go to school. Their school time is about learning and having that confidence. It ends in a better life outcome.”
She says teachers, like everyone else, have implicit gender biases, and may, for instance, subconsciously think that boys are better at maths, or encourage boys to take higher levels of STEM subjects than a girl of the same ability.
University of South Australia associate professor Judith Gill has been studying gender and education for 30 years. She says that she has yet to discover or conduct definitive research which shows either school structure as more effective.
“I’m inclined to take the position that it may not be the most important feature of the school,” she says. “It’s the easiest one to tell. It becomes a defining characteristic, but perhaps it shouldn’t. There are good schools and ordinary schools in both categories.” The debate about which school system is better is often dominated by academic performance measures. The Atar and system of university admissions promotes the ascendance of academic achievement, says Gill. “It encourages a very, very narrow idea of what education is about. We’re now realising that social education, what some people call emotional education, is just as important as academic education.”
In a previous article for, Senator Ó Ríordáin noted that there would be many who would disagree with his party’s proposal. “There are thousands of parents of pupils in single sex schools,” he said, “who will robustly defend their choice and the experience of their children in those same institutions.” But the former headmaster added: “no one should be frightened of a debate.”

Still, feelings appear to be strong in favour of a change.
Sarah McKenny Barry, a journalist for, put the matter quite simply: “life is co-ed, so why aren’t our schools?”