EDUCATION: Larne teacher enters controversial same-sex schools debate

Audrey Stewart. INLT 04-632-CON
Audrey Stewart. INLT 04-632-CON

A Larne teacher has entered the controversial debate regarding the benefits or otherwise of single-sex versus co-ed schools.

The debate began after a Brighton principal controversially claimed recently that girls in single-sex schools were at a ‘huge disadvantage’ because they may not be able to effectively communicate with their male counterparts in the world of university or work.

However, Audrey Stewart, formerly head of Olderfleet Primary and an officer with the Ulster Teachers’ Union, said the argument was more complicated than that.

“Every child will have his or her own individual experience of school which will be influenced by a myriad of factors – whether or not that school is single-sex is just one, and arguably not a very important one,” she said.

“The crucial element in a child’s education is the quality of the teaching first and foremost and for that we, of course, rely on our teachers and the support they get both from their employers and from parents.

“For some children a single-sex school might be preferable, while for others it is not. However, the more important issue which this debate raises is the performance of girls in traditionally male-dominated STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

“We have all heard the well-rehearsed arguments that girls are less likely to thrive in these areas if they are in a co-ed school where they may feel overshadowed by their male counterparts.

“I believe it is this area which is more important to address and I don’t know that any gap in the performance of girls and boys in science and maths is solely due to single sex versus co-ed schools. I think most teachers would agree it is more of a cultural thing – one which is thankfully now being pro-actively addressed by the Department of Education and the Department of Employment and Learning.

“Indeed the statistics from last year’s exams speak for themselves, with the number of girls taking STEM subjects at A-level seeing a notable increase.

“There was a significant rise of 8.6% in the number of students taking A-levels in mathematics, with 10.6% more entries from girls and maths is now the most popular subject, accounting for one in 10 A-level entries.

“To say that is it co-ed schools which are deterring more girls from this potential career path is misleading and a bit old-fashioned. Young people today enjoy more mixed gender friendships than ever, whether those are in school or outside school. The classroom is not the only place where the genders can interact with one another.”