Education: Take away girls, and boys do better

Are single-sex classes the answer to this country's education problems? By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
There is no end to the worry about boys. As fevered concern about their underachievement, inflamed by the media, continues to grip the nation, the true picture is all too often lost sight of: that it is some boys, not all boys, who could be doing better, and that this applies to some girls, too. Also, boys' overall performance has not plummeted, as is claimed, but is simply being highlighted by our new test-driven regime.

Schools, nevertheless, are casting around for new ideas for their lagging- behind boys: new texts, new monitoring systems, new classroom strategies. Some secondary schools are even beginning to question the received wisdom that girls and boys are better off being educated together and experimenting with single-sex lessons.

Single-sex girls schools increasingly find favour with parents, because of eye-catching results in performance league tables. According to recent research, however, the case for single-sex schooling is far from proven because the success of these schools relates as much to the social class and ability of their intake as it does to their single sexness. However, many parents still persist in seeking single-sex schools for their daughters and mixed schools for their sons.

In a mixed school, their thinking goes, the presence of the girls will, in some way, "civilise" their sons, and help them to work hard. Using the success and diligence of the girls both to lean on the boys, and to sell schools to parents, may in itself be an unfair pressure on girls. In schools which split the sexes for some subjects, a common finding is that, freed from the irritation of the boys, the girls actually go even faster ahead.

But girls aside, could there be any advantages for boys in being taught on their own? A return to the days when single-sex state schools were more common is unlikely, as well as generally undesirable. But could single- sex classes within mixed schools provide a realistic way forward for both girls and boys?

Debbie Epstein, a reader at the Institute of Education in London, and co-editor of Failing Boys: Issues in Gender and Achievement (Open University Press), believes that boys and girls can benefit from some separation from one another, to reflect on how they learn and how they relate to one another, provided that they are then brought together again.

She cites research by Anne-Mette Kruse, at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, looking at the effect of single-sex work in Danish schools. There, teachers of single-sex classes found themselves adapting their teaching styles to boys or girls. Boys, when their learning needs were more focused on in this way, began to "open up" and find new ways of approaching conflicts, exploring feelings, and working together co-operatively and non-competitively. Back in co-educational classes after eight weeks of this, Kruse reports that the girls were more confident about speaking up, and the boys showed more respect for the girls than previously.

Research is only just beginning in this country into the effects of sex- segregated teaching. But anecdotal evidence from the small number of schools engaged in it here suggests strongly that a dose of single-sex teaching, pre-sixth form, can improve not only behaviour but academic achievement, too.

The Pingle School, a comprehensive in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, first introduced single-sex teaching two years ago because of concerns about a class of 12-year-olds where a very high proportion of pupils were particularly badly behaved.

The year group was segregated for 70 per cent of their lessons. After a term, 85 per cent of boys and 82 per cent of girls said they preferred being taught this way. Behaviour improved "phenomenally", according to Mike Mayers, the head teacher, and 45 per cent of this year group are now expected to achieve five grade A to Cs at GCSE, compared with a forecast of only 29 per cent when the experiment started.

With monitoring by Loughborough University, the school now segregates all its 11- to 14-year-olds for 80 per cent of lessons, and GCSE students are taught in single-sex classes for English, maths and science.

While separating the boys from the girls does not in itself prevent the most unruly boys from behaving badly, Mr Mayers says, other boys who might have joined in, in order to "impress" the girls, now don't bother. This makes the class easier to contain.

"Also, you can build in more positive competition for the boys, so that it becomes macho to do well in an all-boys group. This has given the boys a far clearer view of what they can do, and they have become more settled and secure in their work."

Shenfield High School, in Essex, has separated boys and girls from 11 to 14 in all academic subjects for the last four years, and at GCSE in maths, English and science. Boys have improved their results here, too - although not as fast as the girls have. John Fairhurst, the headmaster, argues that separating the boys considerably lessens "the peacock effect" - the preening and showing off that (they imagine) impresses the girls.

"Boys will acknowledge their emotional and spiritual lives when the girls are not there, in a way that they won't when the girls are," he says. "Separating by gender is not a panacea, but it can be a helpful push. It's certainly given our teachers and pupils a lot to think about."

Both these schools stress that the success of single-sex teaching depends to a large extent on the individual teacher. A class of middle to lower ability boys, in particular, can be a serious challenge, demanding a strong, confident teacher - of either sex.

Another key factor in making it work is the extent to which teachers can adapt to the preferred learning styles of (most) boys and (most) girls. Research shows, for instance, that boys tend to enjoy more oral work, more structure and more short-term goals. Girls are often better at working together on a task, for a longer period, but may need encouragement to speak out in class.

It could be argued, of course, that a good teacher should be able to accommodate these different needs within a mixed class. Mr Fairhurst counters that a single-sex class reduces the difficulty for the teacher and enables them to be more effective by focusing the lesson differently.

Although only a small number of schools have so far committed themselves to single-sex teaching on a large scale, many more are experimenting with it in one or two subjects - modern languages, for example, where boys notoriously lag behind and are thought to be more self-conscious in the presence of girls.

Debbie Epstein believes it is a trend which could well catch on. What is crucial, though, she adds, is that separating the boys from the girls should not be seen as just another form of punishment for the boys. Well handled, and properly thought out, it could prove a very positive experience for boys. Parents might find that it even suited their daughters rather well, too.