As I grew up I used to hate being told that my school years ‘would be the best of my life.’ It’s a depressing and even terrifying phrase for a child to hear. While I’m too young to fact-check it just yet, all I can say is how much I enjoyed my school years. Surrounded by friends, I spent most of my days doing the things I loved.
Much of this I put down to the school I attended. Just a 5-minute cycle down the road (more time in bed each morning) and surrounded by friends I would meet again just as the school day ended to kick a ball with until our legs gave up. Both the primary and secondary schools I went to were single-sex schools, something I never considered strange at the time.
The killing of Ashling Murphy earlier this month has us all asking how such a thing could happen and not just this unfortunate time, but over and over. While the ingraining of the tragic events of January the 12th into the public consciousness is important to allow us to take stock and reflect, so many more incidences go under the radar. Male violence against women is shamefully rampant and a national effort of soul searching has been underway.
As part of this, men have been asked to reflect deeply, more than ever before. By reflecting, I don’t just mean condemning obvious examples of blatant misogyny, intimidation or violence against women. We are to take an honest look at our own behaviour. Our actions and our inaction when we see unacceptable behaviour from other men we consider ourselves close to. We are required to not look at any incident in isolation but underlying conditions which made us either act how we did or stand by when we should have stood up. And trust me when I say, all us men have incidences to reflect on and learn from.
One thing that has stuck in my mind ever since is the precious time spent in the local all-boys school that I loved so much. During my time there I considered my experience to be normal. Dublin is full of all-boys and all-girls schools under religious ownership, I thought that was just the way education goes. I also thought the behaviour that went on in my school was normal. Slurs were thrown around and the environment was a breeding ground for toxic masculinity, even from a startlingly young age.
As I reflect now I realise the experience of attending gender-segregated schools is not normal, nor is the behaviour you become desensitised to when you immerse yourself in such an environment for your formative years.
For this piece, I spoke to the Labour TD and spokesperson for Education, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, who has called for the abolishment of single-sex schools for years. Deputy Ó Ríordáin told the College Tribune that ‘Our lives aren’t separated by gender. Neither should our schools,’ and explained that ‘gender segregation cannot tackle gender stereotypes and foster inter-gender understanding to the same extent.’
In Ireland, 17% of primary school children and 1 in 3 secondary school children like me, attended a single-sex school, the average here in Dublin is far higher. These figures make Ireland a huge outlier by international comparisons. The toxic environment that I and so many men have experienced in single-sex schools could be doing untold damage to our society and hampering our efforts as a society and as men to do better.
As Deputy Ó Ríordáin explained ‘artificial dynamics created along gender lines are not replicated in wider society so on that basis it’s hard to know what resilience is being built up within young people by educating them in a contrived environment.’
Writing in the Irish Examiner in the wake of the killing of Ashling Murphy, the principal of Cork Educate Together Secondary School and a member of the board of directors of Educate Together, Colm O’Connor wrote a piece on how schools can become a place where ‘children can learn to respect themselves and each other.’
One of the proposals O’Connor made to make schools a place to build respect, understanding, and equality in Irish society was to end segregation in schools. He wrote; ‘I’ve worked in both single-sex and mixed systems for about a decade each, and there is no comparison. Others may disagree, but I believe that segregating students is dehumanising and prevents the development of empathy and shared understanding.’
As Ireland continues its collective effort of soul-searching, often taking place in the stillness of a candlelight vigil we have attended in recent days, some of us may ask difficult questions of ourselves that are uncomfortable to answer. For me, one of these has been my experiences in the school I attended. A place I made amazing friends and memories that I will cherish for life. Is it possible for us to look back at such happy times and yet take stock of what damage may have been forged at such a young age? And can we as a society learn from these experiences and finally turn our grief into substantive progress?
Conor Paterson – Co-Editor