Education: 'You get to talk about macho stuff'

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The Independent Online
"SOME BOYS show off when the girls are there; it's easier to work when they're not."

Moulsham High School in Chelmsford, Essex, is a school which gets results. 64 per cent of its GCSE pupils gained five A to C grades last year, and the gap between boys' and girls' achievement is lower than the national average. Dr Chris Nicholls, the head teacher, is convinced that the school's policy of segregating of boys and girls for some subjects up to GCSE is a significant influence on its results. From 11 to 14, pupils are all taught in single-sex classes, meeting only in the playground, and from 14 to 16, study maths, English, science and PE separately.

The pupils who stand to benefit most from this arrangement, he argues, are also those who, without a strong teacher, are likely to be disruptive: boys of lower ability. Teacher expectations of these boys are higher when there are no girls to compare them with, and the boys feel less like failures. Teachers can adapt their style to the boys (Homerton College in Cambridge is embarking on research into how far teachers do this naturally). They can also create a different, boy-friendly atmosphere - with more question and answer sessions and quick tests - which make boys want to compete.

"I prefer it without the girls," says Peter, 15, in a lower-ability set for physics. "You get to talk about what you want - boys' stuff."

"It's better with just boys because the girls are cleverer, they suck up to the teachers and some teachers don't really pay any attention to the boys," says Chris, 16, in the same set. "Some boys show off when the girls are there, so it's easier to work."

Other boys, however, maintain that it makes little difference, girls or no girls. Neil, 16, says he prefers to have the girls there, "because they keep us in check."

Moulsham was one of three Essex comprehensives originally designed, in the early Seventies, to teach boys and girls separately as part of an equal opportunities drive to balance the all-girl schools in the area. The other two schools later became co-educational, but Moulsham stuck it out. The school was thought odd in the 1980s and early 1990s, but is now attracting a great deal of interest for its policies.

Dr Nicholls teaches physics to many of the lower-ability boys' sets, and has modified his teaching accordingly: more teaching from the front of the class, more dialogue with the boys, and more short, sharp bursts of varied activity. The occasional well-placed joke goes down well, he says, as do references, where appropriate, to stereotypically boyish interests - formula one racing, for instance, in a lesson on measuring speed. There is a danger, he acknowledges, of slipping back too much into gender stereotypes:

"But you have a better chance of changing sexist attitudes if you get them to think for themselves, and if you can motivate them by grabbing their interest, you can bring them across the gender divide later on."

Rachel Small, a German teacher, says that she prefers single-sex teaching considerably, "because it's much easier to focus the lesson on what will interest them, and you get better results that way."

"I like it better without the girls, because there are other boys who show off to the girls and throw stuff around," says Matthew, 13. "Also, I'm going through a stage when I'm a bit self-conscious. It's easier to talk in German to boys than to girls."