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Analytical Essay on Single Sex Schools: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender and Social Class on Schooling

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1.0. Introduction:

Education in Ireland plays a crucial role in shaping society. The dramatic transformation of Irish society in the past number of decades has contributed to the monumental steps taken to strive to create inclusivity in the Irish Education System. The growing interest and impact of ethnicity, gender and social class on schools and schooling effects a students experience of education. Students are undoubtedly influenced socially though the school environment and their peers. It is evident that those of varied ethnic groups, gender and social class are aware of their social status more predominantly at secondary level than primary level. It is the responsibility of the education system to equip the youth with the knowledge, values and attitudes to make a difference as well as a positive contribution to society. Through teaching students how to critically think they form their own conceptions and perceptions of people and situations.

W.B. Yeats once said that “Education is not like the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This reflects on its role and impact on society, how its inherent ability to change ones behaviours and attitudes in an ever changing world. This essay will examine the impact of ethnicity, gender and social class on schools and schooling reflecting on the importance of student experience and its effect on students educational outcomes and progression into further education and working life.

1.1. Ethnicity and Education:

Ethnicity is referring to a shared culture or way of life. There has been a long standing indigenous and immigrant ethnic minorities in Ireland e.g. travellers, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Polish and refugees. It cannot be denied that ethnicity in schools in today’s society has a substantial impact on students experience of education both socially and academically. The Irish education system has been crucial in the cultural revival of the 1920’s in post- independence Ireland. A significant number of schools in the country were and still are religiously owned and controlled. Predominantly, schools with Roman Catholic ethos have a dominant ethnic community. This section will identify the impact of ethnicity on schools and schooling and its effects on students education experience in Ireland.

The increase in immigrants attending schools in Ireland has been consequential since 1990. Ethnic identities are actively formed through interaction which is a very personal experience and what makes adolescence so important. According to the CSO in 2016 there were 96,497 non-Irish national students and pupils aged 5 years and over attending schools throughout the country. Dympna Devine states that “the role of the state, through its immigration and educational policies, in framing teacher discourse in inclusionary or exclusionary terms” therefore, Devine highlights that the state has only a national identity interest which positions all minority ethnic groups as “other” (Devine, 2005, p. 49). This discourse is indeed evident through the vast majority of schools with a Roman Catholic ethos in the country. Incorporating as well as introducing culture and awareness of ethnicity to society is becoming a growing part of the Irish education system. The three main types of secondary school still stand, voluntary, vocational and community and comprehensive schools. The Educate Together school establishments which were first introduced in 1978 and are increasing in numbers around the country. These schools are democratically run with an emphasis on the encouragement of active participation by both students and parents. The schools differ in many ways to the traditional school values previous to 1978. Educate together schools ethos involve an equality based environment with no one set of religious ethos, a child-centred environment where student voice is valued and a co-educational classroom is in place (Educate Together, 2018).

Intercultural relationships need to be promoted in schools where ‘inclusive’ admission policies need to be implemented in schools throughout the country. David Gillborn in his article examines the various ethnic groups in secondary schools in the U.K. He found that students ethnic backgrounds impacted on their academic results in school. In maths in particular students who were of Indian origin or white achieved significantly higher results than the Black African or Black Caribbean students. Gender also played a role in the results. These test scores and perceptions result in students being streamed into higher and lower sets and as a result the “association between set placement and final achievement is hardly surprising” (Gillborn, 2010, p. 234). These students are left feeling segregated in a non- inclusive environment. Van der Brachts moves away from the impact of ethnicity on academic achievement and examines idea “that schools exert important socializing influences” and that due to the amount of time students spend in school it shapes a student’s behaviour and values (Van der Bracht, 2017, p. 2). Students in a school with a higher population of varied ethnic groups effects religiosity and Van der Bracht finds that “ a positive effect of attending a school with a higher share of ethnic minority pupils on changes in religiosity” (Van der Bracht, 2017, p. 8). Students in the minority tend to remain together which is evident in schools throughout the country.

1.2. Gender and Education:

Gender is a term that refers to social or cultural distinctions associated with being male or female. Gender identity is the extent to which one identifies as being either masculine or feminine (Diamond, 2002). It is apparent that gender has a profound effect on the educational outcomes of students. This section will examine how ones gender both male/ female and LGBT effects educational experience in Ireland.

According to Diane Reay “The seduction of binaries such as male: female, boy: girl often prevents us from seeing the full range of diversity and differentiation existing within one gender as well as between categories of male and female.” (Reay, 2001, p. 163). Society determines peoples behaviours depending on their gender identification. In Barbara Reads article she examines young girls perceptions of femininity as being associated with “niceness”, “prettiness” and “friendliness” (Read, 2011, p. 6 & 7). Young girls role models from an early age are usually gender based with the popular girl in school aligning with these role models who are generally the highly feminine celebrity. These common perceptions among girls are the result of the docile manifestations of femininity where women are compliant, elegant, polite, gentle and deferential in stark comparison to the ideas in this hegemonic society where masculinity is defined by acts of aggression, physical domination and denigration of the female (Keddie, 2006). Education and schools are agents for perpetuating the social process of gendered identities.

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It is evident that in today’s society school subjects undertaken by students are often dependant on gender. “Gender ideology” is a concept discussed by many academics, the concept of the ideology ascertains how a social environment and the depiction of cultural beliefs can define the “appropriate” behaviours of male and female. The generalisations that males are academically stronger at maths, science and practical subjects such as woodwork, DCG, and metal work are compared with the generalisations that art, music, English are subjects associated with being highly feminine. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) on Education in 2016, more girls than boys sat higher level papers in the Leaving Certificate exams in English, French, Irish, Biology, Chemistry, Art, Home Economics and Music. In the same year more boys than girls took the higher level papers in Mathematics, Physics, Construction studies, Design and communication graphics (DCG) and Engineering. As a result of this, the number of males graduating from Engineering degrees in 2016 was 82.4% and the number of females graduating from Health being 76. % and Education 71.4%. These statistics confirm the “gender ideology” surrounding male and female behaviours and who influences the perceived “appropriate” occupations for these gender stereotypes.

Emer Smyth (2010) examines the low take up of practical or technological subjects by females in a school in co-educational secondary schools in Ireland. A high percentage of students did not take “non-conventional” subjects due to the influence of their peers, teacher input and influence from family members. It was noted that business was seen as a “useful” subject and one of which provides potential success and opportunity. Student perceptions of subjects varied from her research with students seeing Art as an easy subject predominantly taken by females and with small female to male ratios in the woodwork classes. The influence of subject teachers in their approach to promoting their subject to the targeted gender group reiterates Jessica Ringrose’s theory that schools are upholding the “status quo” and continues to be the sight of the reproduction of these gender inequalities (Ringrose, 2012). This leads to the long standing promotion of single sex schools especially in Ireland and the tendency of students to do better academically due to “less distraction” from the opposite sex. This perception however, may be applied and practised due to cultural, historical or religious influences and as a result one third of the secondary schools in this country are single sex. The downfall of single sex schools is the lack of development in social skills for interaction between the sexes and in preparation for third level or working life. During their secondary education students feel the need to promote their masculinity or femininity and outside of these traditional conventions and constraints it can be extremely difficult to “fit in”. It must be considered by teachers the varied learning styles and varied expectations of students depending on their gender identification. It is important to encourage students to enjoy their educational experience and not to be defined by the social constraints (peers, social media, family, teachers etc.) they struggle to escape.

1.3. Social Class and Education:

Bourdieu defines social class as not defined by a property, nor by a collection of properties […] but by the structure of relations between all the pertinent properties which gives its specific value to each of them and to the effects they exert on practices. (Bourdieu, 1984). The idea of social class is complex and the boundaries between the classes are rarely clear-cut. In today’s society people tend to be familiar with their own social stratification, from an individual’s job title, income, education background, geographical position, family history or their accent etc. people are profoundly aware of their status in society. The most influential factor in determining ones class in today’s society is income. Society today continues to favour those of ‘privilege’, those who are given the ‘opportunity’ for further education, jobs in ‘positions of trust’ and the contacts to ‘network’. This idea refers back to Bourdieu’s theory on the types of capital in society, economic, cultural and social. Working class are seen as ‘inferior’ and ‘contained’ with limited opportunity or potential for success and unfortunately as a result of this prejudice the working class suffers in society. It is evident that even through our education system that schools are educating different social classes from different functions in society.

Social class determines your place in society. This intersectionality produces more complex patterns of discrimination than allowed for by single dimension conceptualisations. Consequently, this refers back to Bourdieu’s view on class structure, the social reproduction by societal constitutions including the approach by schools and the education system to reproduce relationships of power between social classes. Working class education is made to serve middle class interests (Reay, 2006, p. 294). Rising inequalities in our society prevent the movement of the classes although it is not uncommon for people to change their social status. This “social destination” (Ishida, 1995) is often difficult to reach due to the current social situation. In the Irish school league tables (although not always accurate) we see a blatant division between the classes and the effect that ‘geographical position’ has on society. According to these tables based on students who sat the Leaving Certificate (2018), Secondary schools in the Dublin 4 region had a 97% rate of progression to third level education, this is in comparison to postcodes such as Dublin 17 with a 7% rate of progression to third level and Dublin 18 with a 18% rate of progression to third level. This does not determine a person’s academic ability and does not confirm that the middle class are somewhat more intelligent, instead it reflects on people’s perceptions, expectations and aspirations depending on class. Without the suitable resources and a safe environment available for students, they are unable to learn or in fact reach their “social destination”. DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) were set up in 2005 to facilitate these educational and social needs. The initiative strives to create a positive educational experience where students are able to learn in a secure environment. Reay discusses how disadvantaged schools are seen as an illusion and questions how students and teachers are seen as “inferior” in these schools (Reay, 2006). It is unfortunate that in fact it is these teachers who are often superb at their job and are dismissed due to the “status” of the school and the academic records each year which are compared to the ever increasing fee paying and grind schools. Again we consistently see middle class verses the working class.

An effective education system is one which promotes enhancement, inclusion and participation despite the division in social classes. Margaret Thatcher a woman who had a substantial impact on neo-liberal reform in the English education system, once said “there is no such thing as society”. In a society that is moving into a culture of individualisation it is our responsibility to attack the social justice problems and stop the generalisations. Marx’s theory of “alienation” is pivotal in comprehending the divide and through being aware of peoples positions in society let it be due to their culture i.e. travellers, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation etc. people can contribute to creating an inclusive environment. As teachers it is of significant importance to not deny or ignore social inequalities but to be sensitive and considerate. Diane Reay refers to her study on students treatment in the classroom (although it is based on a school in the U.K.) and how it was notable that the teacher unknowingly differentiated his behaviour towards students based on their class and perceptive academic ability (Reay, 2006). This behaviour and treatment combined with bad experiences with other teachers, low grades or a more common factor in recent times “irresponsible parenting” etc. leads to high levels of absenteeism. In his article Croll sees “family behaviour, or the behaviour of family members is seen as playing a key role in the educational experiences and outcomes for a child” (Croll, 2004, p. 393). Rising percentages of students consistent absence in schools in turn leads to the intervention of organisations such as TUSLA (The Child and Family Agency) who investigate the child’s welfare and protection. Unfortunately, the majority of these problems all return to a persons or a family’s income. People who struggle through school with high levels of absence etc. often are lacking in motivation, self-esteem and aspiration due to the constraints of their social class. The demand for high grades and substantial fees required for entry to third level education favours the middle class interests. Education should be accessible to all, society should not and cannot determine a person’s ability to succeed in life both socially and economically.

1.4. Conclusion:

To conclude, it is evident that the impact of ethnicity, class and gender on schools and schooling is monumental. A persons class or financial state, ethnicity or whether a person identifies as masculine or feminine should not determine their experience of schooling and their outcome from school.

From my own experience of schooling in Donegal it is evident that our education system struggles to facilitate those in varied socio-economic classes with the current starting fees in third level standing at 3000 euro. With the ever increasing college fees and the rising rent prices in cities such as Dublin, Galway and Cork families simply are unable to afford third level unless they qualify for government funding such as the SUSI grant however, it also proves difficult to receive. Unfortunately, this leads to students venturing to Scotland for college where free fees are enticing and as a result these students either remain their or emigrate, contributing to our falling young population in Ireland. Schools are moving away from streaming subjects and classifying them as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ although it remains the case in a number of single sex schools, predominantly male that subjects such as home economics continue not to be an option. Our education system promotes the idea of schools creating an inclusive environment, however, when examining ethnicity in schools in Ireland it is apparent that an inclusive environment is not always to the fore. Looking at the schools with a Catholic Ethos it is evident that efforts are not always made to include students of ‘other’ religion or ethnicity when it comes to school masses etc. From my own experience in schools it is noticeable that these students are in another room in the school doing homework while the rest of the students attend mass. I feel efforts should be made for these students to incorporate their faith and culture into the school and create the inclusive environment schools strive for.

Society in Ireland has transformed dramatically over the past number of decades. Our education system is a pivotal part of society in educating and moulding the young people of today. Oscar Wilde once said “Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals.”


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  3. Devine, D. (2005) Welcome to the Celtic Tiger? Teacher responses to immigration and increasing ethnic diversity in Irish schools. International Studies in Sociology of Education, Vol 15, No 1 : 49 – 70
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