THE bell rings and the chorus of young voices gets louder, gradually filling the corridors and stairwells with chatter as pupils find their friends after early morning classes.

The breaktime routine at Notre Dame High in the Dowanhill area of Glasgow’s west end is typical of most secondary schools: there are notes to be dropped off at the front office, timetables to be checked, snacks to be consumed. But as the students walk by in their smart brown uniforms you notice one big difference here: every one of them is female.

Notre Dame is Scotland’s last remaining single-sex state school, a reminder that only a couple of generations ago young people were routinely educated according to gender. Most single-sex schools closed or were amalgamated in the 1970s and 80s, but this one – a Catholic establishment founded by nuns in 1897 whose alumni includes former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini and singer and actress Clare Grogan – simply kept going. After all, there are no laws that prevent state schools from being single-sex and many of the parents sending their daughters here specifically opt for the all-girls environment.

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According to headteacher Rosemary Martin, Notre Dame is “a high achieving school that punches above its weight” although, interestingly, she puts this success down to the ethos of the school rather than the fact there are no boys. Placing requests come from all over Glasgow and beyond, but since the roll is not at capacity, clearly some parents don’t want their daughters educated in a single-sex school.

Indeed, if one group of parents and campaigners have their way, the school will cease to exist in its current form. Notre Dame High For All wants it to be open to boys as well as girls and describes current catchment arrangements – where boys moving on from the co-educational feeder primary are only guaranteed places at a secondary two miles away – as discriminatory, outdated and unfair.

Campaign member Niamh Breakey lives in Dowanhill and has three sons at Notre Dame Primary.

“I can see the high school from my window and want my boys to be able to walk to school,” she says. “Our only option at present is to consider moving house. Notre Dame High is state-funded for special needs at the expense of local children. Tradition is not an excuse for discrimination.”

Other parents – and indeed many current and former pupils – are staunchly against change, however, and have set up an opposing campaign group, ND4GRLS. They say girls do better educationally and grow more confident in a single-sex setting.

“Gender differences exist socially, emotionally and physically,” says a spokeswoman. “If they are acknowledged and viewed positively, we can continue to break trends and create more positive outcomes.”

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The future of Notre Dame High is a big issue for parents, students and the wider community, and both sides will have the chance to contribute to a consultation on the school’s future by Glasgow City Council towards the end of this year, following a review of secondary school catchment criteria.

But the controversy also prompts wider questions about education and gender at a time when equality is arguably the most important battleground of our age. As the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the #MeToo campaign, the gender pay gap and the stubborn lack of women in senior positions across so many areas of society have all highlighted, there is still a long way to go.

There is wide agreement among politicians, business people, academics and commentators that action is needed, and also that schools play a vital role in ensuring girls receive equal opportunities, are encouraged to study traditionally male-dominated subjects such as sciences, technology and maths, gain the confidence to overcome gender barriers and reach their full potential.

What many don’t agree on, however, is the right learning environment to make this happen, specifically whether single-sex or co-educational schools are best for girls.

Those in favour of single-sex education say girls and boys have different learning needs, adding that teachers in single-sex schools use techniques designed to suit each gender. They also argue that, since there are no “boys’ subjects” in girls’ schools, more females opt to study maths, sciences and technology. Supporters say girls are given room to grow more confident in single-sex schools and that both genders are less distracted when segregated. A 2015 study of exam results in England – where there are many more single-sex schools – found that 75 per cent of pupils in girls’ secondaries got five good GCSE passes, compared with 55 per cent in co-educational schools.

Those on the opposing side, meanwhile, believe separating boys and girls is fundamentally discriminatory and makes it harder for them to relate socially outside of school, including later in life in higher education and the workplace. They argue it encourages unrealistic and ideological perceptions and deepens gender stereotypes. They point out, too, that girls tend to get better exam results than boys regardless of a school’s gender mix. In 2014, a major independent analysis of single-sex education in the US looked at more than 180 studies from 120 nations and concluded that there was no benefit to girls from single-sex education. It also found evidence that all-female education “makes gender segregation of adult science and technology occupations more salient... reducing girls’ performance and motivation”.

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At Notre Dame, senior pupils are keen to draw on their own experience while exploring these issues. The four S5 girls I meet are all confident, intelligent and thoughtful young people who have clearly flourished at this school. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that all strongly support single-sex education and none wants to see boys here.

“This is a unique school not just because it’s all girls, but because we all come from such diverse backgrounds,” says Lori Bell. “There’s no divide – everyone mixes with each other. We’re here for one another.

“The teachers and the other students push you, in a nice way, to be the best you can be. Whether you’re good at sciences or creative subjects, there is always someone there challenging you to come out of your comfort zone. That’s what I love about this school.”

The 16-year-old is about to sit five Highers and hopes to study computing at university.

“Every subject here is a ‘girls’ subject’ and that really opens doors for all of us. In a mixed school I’d be weighing up how many boys there were in class and I think I’d be questioning what my friends would think of me doing sciences. Or maybe I would choose subjects because a boy I fancied was doing it too. Here at Notre Dame I choose my subjects on their own terms.

“I wouldn’t want to jeopardise the friendly, welcoming community we’ve created here, which is why I wouldn’t want boys to be allowed in.”

When I ask whether Notre Dame girls miss out on the everyday reality of a mixed gender world, Lori is dismissive.

“High school isn’t about being social, it’s about coming out with good exam results so you can secure a good future,” she says.

She adds that the girls here have ample opportunity to mix with co-educational schools on different projects, and many do activities outside of school with boys and have brothers and male cousins.

The students from Notre Dame come from a diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds and a Catholic education is notably popular with many Muslim parents. Among the pupils is Riziki Xaaji, a budding engineer who is also studying for five Highers. “I think the ethnic and religious mix would be jeopardised if we had boys at the school,” says the 16-year-old Muslim. “Some Muslim parents want their daughters to come here because it’s all-female – they feel more comfortable with that.

“I’m not sure I would have chosen the subjects I do here, especially maths and sciences, in a mixed school. I sometimes ask myself – would I have been downgraded because I’m a girl? Would I be as confident? I do lots of sports and I wonder if I would have had to stop doing them at a mixed school.”

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Indeed, it’s interesting that all the girls immediately correlate confidence with being at a girls’ school and view boys as a “distraction”. Why, I venture, would having boys in the class automatically make them less confident, or less keen to choose sciences or do sport? Perhaps, I suggest, they are over-emphasising the disruptive force of boys? Maybe being in a single-sex environment means constant reinforcement from those around you – teachers, parents and peers – that this is the “best” way to be educated, which means you can misunderstand the far less dramatic reality of being in classes with boys? After all, the overwhelming majority of girls are educated alongside their brothers and male friends.

Sophia Drikakis came to Notre Dame two years ago from a co-educational school and is adamant that, for her, being in an all-girls school is best.

“In my last school I did physics and there were only two girls in the class,” explains the 16-year-old, who is studying for five Highers and has been offered places at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities. “It was intimidating and I didn’t really like putting my hand up. It felt better when I came here and there was a lot of encouragement to do maths and sciences, which is important for me because I want to be an engineer.”

Meanwhile, Niamh Watt, 17, believes the all-female environment helps girls maintain more positive attitudes towards body image.

“I don’t wear make-up and I’m not so bothered about what I look like,” says Niamh, who is sitting three Highers and hopes to pursue a career in interior design. “You don’t have to worry about your body image because you’re not surrounded by boys who might judge you. Body image is a big thing for all of us, especially because of the added pressures of social media.

“Because we are all girls here, no one is scared to talk about it. It’s not hidden because we know it’s something all of us go through.”

Lori adds: “If anything I feel there is a recognition among us that the world out there is male-dominated, so we have to stick together. It’s us against the world.”

Former Notre Dame pupil Stacey Mullan believes her years at the school prepared her for “real” life. The 34-year-old attended from 1996 to 2001 and now works as a journalist for Glasgow’s Evening Times.

“I don’t think I’d be a crime reporter today if I hadn’t gone to Notre Dame,” she says. “I need to be able to talk to people from all walks of life, and at school I was always encouraged to speak out.

“It also opened my eyes to different cultures. The school prepared me for university and the working world. Looking back, it could sometimes be quite cliquey, maybe even what I’d call ‘bitchy’, but I think it is the same in any school or working environment.”

Notre Dame girls, then, both past and present, believe they benefit from a single-sex education. But others are concerned that segregation could reinforce the very discrimination and stereotypes the girls talk so enthusiastically of overcoming.

Among them is Dr Catherine Lido, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education, who has a keen interest in gender and schooling. According to Dr Lido, there is no clear winner between single-sex and co-educational schools academically, but segregation can contribute to gender prejudices in wider society. She believes only a non-gendered approach across all types of school is likely to lead to equality.

“It would appear, from a meta-analytic point of view, that there are no advantages in terms of achievement for either type of schooling,” she explains. “But single-sex education runs the risk of confirming stereotypes. My concern is that single-sex schooling faces real challenges in implementing non-gendered schooling because its very nature is based on segregation rather than inclusion.

“Stereotyping research suggests that, in order to reduce prejudice, contact under conditions of equality, co-operation and friendship must take place between groups. Modern approaches to sexism suggest this now includes a benevolent component, including a sense of ‘protective paternalism’ towards women and young girls. This notion that girls need to be shielded from boys in order to perform well is dangerous.

“A better approach would be for all schools to address their implicit gender bias and ask why the girls are huddled in a corner during playtime. We also need to think more deeply about career exposure in primary schools to unpack implicit gender biases and create opportunities for boys and girls to co-operate as humans, rather than accepting ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘girls will be girls’.”

Back at Notre Dame, the bell rings again and the pupils make their way back to class, focusing for now on timetables, books and folders rather than gender balance. But the debate on how best to educate girls continues, and the future of their school is an interesting and contentious part of this. Whether boys will one day join them in these buzzing corridors remains to be seen.