Andrew Cunningham: Why girls do so much better than boys

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The Independent Online

ore inde-pendent schools are going co-ed, with the number of single-sex schools shrinking. Yet the league tables are still dominated by girls-only schools, and the gap between boys and girls at GCSE remains huge. Last summer, only 51 per cent of boys gained five good GCSE passes, as opposed to 61 per cent of girls. So it's not surprising that the Government has recently conceded that boys and girls may learn better separately in state secondary schools, too.

After my first term in a top girls' school, I now understand why girls' results are so good. For 15 years, I taught mainly boys. I was used to their sluggish ways. Then I started teaching English at North London Collegiate School. I couldn't believe the difference. The main challenge in teaching boys is trying to shake them out of their torpor. Here, the girls are keen to learn and they make huge demands of their teachers.

Most refreshing is the climate of academic achievement. In some co-ed independent schools, the games culture - where hockey is more important than Hamlet - can rule; teachers have to overcome an "uncool to work" ethos. Indeed, the laddish anti-learning culture is one main reason why the Government thinks boys fall so far behind. At one boarding school I taught at, the boys hung out a huge banner on Speech Day, proclaiming that "Absolute Zero Effort is Cool". Silly boys would make sucking-up sounds if a keen pupil put his hand up in class. At North London Collegiate, there's a forest of hands when a question is asked.

It's a battle to get boys to read, but most girls I now teach have read classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, and much else. You see girls walking around school with Isabel Allende novels under their arms. And it's highly rewarding to be able to suggest some wider or holiday reading without the class falling about in amusement.

My Year 8 class is studyingJane Eyre. There's no way such a book would be on the agenda for 12-year-olds at a co-ed school. The boys would take one look at the number of pages (nearly 500) and switch off - and put the girls off in the process. In my experience, boys cannot cope with more demanding works. That's why short, snappy, basic books like Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea are the staple GCSE set texts at so many co-ed independents.

At such schools, you're doing well if you manage to drum in a few basic literary terms, such as simile. Not only do girls know exactly what similes and metaphors are, but they understand alliteration, assonance and sibilance as well. And no time is wasted in class. Even a 10-minute slot at the end of a form period, when you've finished discussing the day's business, can turn into a debate on topical or moral issues, with all the class keen to contribute.

Girls as young as 12 and 13 regularly speak at school debating societies, growing in intellectual confidence. I was amazed at the levels of interest at North London Collegiate's literary and dramatic society, where around 20 girls meet each week after school to discuss writers such as Sylvia Plath, TS Eliot and Thomas Hardy over tea and biscuits. It's civilised, and the standard of debate is very high.

Girls seem so much more creative. Every teacher at a co-ed school will know the sense of tedium when school shows or satirical sketches are staged for charity. The material is tired and weak, and the same jokes about the same pupils and teachers crop up each year. At North London Collegiate, not only do girls regularly take assemblies themselves, they even manage to turn them into amusing events, full of wit and originality. And the highlight at the end of the autumn term is a special version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas", wittily rewritten, with the whole school singing along.

Of course, there are downsides to teaching so many girls. They can react in unexpected ways - like the time my Year 7 class all went "Ahhh!" when they saw a squirrel outside the window. But the biggest benefit is that you're teaching enquiring minds with a mature approach to study. And that's why girls' schools should lead the league tables for some time to come.

education@independent.co.uk

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