Education news

Single-sex schools 'not putting girls at huge disadvantage'

Avril Hall Callaghan said the debate on single sex versus co-ed schools raised important issues

A debate on single sex versus co-ed schools raises important issues, a leading Northern Ireland educationalist has claimed.

Girls in single sex schools were said to be at a "huge disadvantage" according to private school principal Richard Cairns.

He claimed many may not be able to effectively communicate with their male counterparts in the world of university or work.

Now, Avril Hall Callaghan, General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers' Union, has said the argument is more complicated.

"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."

Ms Hall Callaghan added that there were well-rehearsed arguments that girls were less likely to thrive in such areas if they were in a co-ed school where they may feel over-shadowed 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 for Employment and Learning," she said.

"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 per cent in the number of pupils taking A-levels in mathematics, with 10.6 per cent more entries from girls. 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," Ms Hall Callaghan said.

"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."

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