Focus: Should boys and girls be educated separately?

It looks easy. Segregate boys from girls, black from white, and watch the pass rates rise. But when Michael Bygrave went to neighbouring inner-city schools, he found that armchair critics of today's co-eds haven't done their homework
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The Independent Online

This is a tale of two schools. Highbury Grove and Highbury Fields are both inner-city comprehensives, situated a quarter of a mile apart in Islington, the London borough where trendy media and New Labour types live alongside acres of deprived council estates.

This is a tale of two schools. Highbury Grove and Highbury Fields are both inner-city comprehensives, situated a quarter of a mile apart in Islington, the London borough where trendy media and New Labour types live alongside acres of deprived council estates.

In a week when educational segregation, whether of underachieving Afro-Caribbean boys, or of girls from boys in single-sex schools, became a hot pre-election issue, schools such as Highbury Grove and Highbury Fields represent the frontline. Though neither is the failing inner-city school of legend - in fact, both are success stories - their experiences, and their results, are very different.

Highbury Grove is a multiethnic co-ed school, with 1,150 pupils speaking 50 languages between them. For more than half the pupils, English is their second language. The number eligible for free school meals - a measure of low income - is also above 50 per cent.

Highbury Fields, on the other hand, is a smaller school, all-girls, with 780 pupils. "The great majority" of them also come "from disadvantaged communities", according to a September 2004 Ofsted report. Two-thirds belong to ethnic minority groups. One third speak one of 38 languages other than English.

Last year, 29 per cent of Highbury Grove students gained five or more GCSEs at C grade or above - the accepted benchmark and a major achievement for a school that in the words of its deputy head, Henry Jones, went through "a bad patch" some years ago, had a tough reputation and was managing only 16 per cent as recently as 1997.

Given its intake, Highbury Grove's performance is now exactly where it should be. The big surprise is Highbury Fields. With what appears to be the same kind of intake, its GCSE figure last year was a whopping 65 per cent. As you'd expect, the school is heavily oversubscribed.

So does that make same-sex schools the winners in one of education's oldest debates? Tony Mooney, chairman of the governors at Highbury Fields, feels "there are big advantages in educating girls separately from boys - mainly in promoting role models."

Margaret Coffey, who sent her two daughters to Highbury Fields and was delighted with the "very good quality of education", also believed "the American research I read years ago which said that women who went to same-sex schools did better. It was an important factor in our choosing Highbury Fields."

But not so fast. Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, says the evidence isn't there. "Differences between co-ed and same-sex schools can usually be traced back to differences in intake. The intakes may look the same but often they're not. Differences in performance are mainly attributable to the abilities of children in the school and their other characteristics" -mostly social class.

"What is true is that girls do better than boys. It may come from a very small difference in verbal abilities on average between the sexes. During the early years of schooling, this difference gets exaggerated. The girls settle down more easily and get to reading, while education for boys lets them run around a bit, and the gap widens. It looks as if girls used to be held back by social expectations, but that's now changed and girls have been overtaking boys, including at A-level from 2001.

"So an all-girls school will produce overall better exam results than a co-ed school. But if you tease it out and compare like with like - girls at an all-girls school with girls at a co-ed school; and the boys the same - the differences largely disappear."

Henry Jones agrees. "Highbury Fields is a smaller school than ours. It has a much narrower catchment area. And a much bigger waiting list! There's no question girls outperform boys at 14 and at 16. But I think there are differences in intake between the two schools as well, and that's a major factor."

Professor Smithers adds: "When schools are oversubscribed, you do get selection. It's denied, but it happens."

Until seven years ago, co-ed Highbury Grove was also a single-sex school, but for boys only (even today, girls make up only one in three pupils, with numbers gradually increasing). "We changed because there were so many single-sex schools in Islington, and we felt parents ought to have more choice," Jones says, adding that the benefits have been clear. "It's helped change the school culture away from the slightly macho image we had in the past."

If the evidence on single-sex schools is inconclusive, what about underachievement by black boys? In the same way that girls outperform boys at all levels of education (except for first-class degrees, awarded to more young men than young women), black boys are known to underperform: 75 per cent of black boys in London leave school without five GCSEs at C grade or above. That was the figure cited this week by the Commission for Racial Equality's chairman, Trevor Phillips, who suggested it might be time to teach black boys in separate classes.

"I think our Afro-Caribbean students would say to me, as they have done in the past, 'why are we being singled out?'," says Jones. "I understand what Trevor Phillips is saying but it's a complex issue and it's comparative - there are other underachieving groups, including white working-class students in our school. We have a lot of support, a lot of programmes in place like Saturday school, holiday school, revision programmes. We monitor very closely to make sure Afro-Caribbean students are properly represented in these."

At Highbury Fields, Mooney feels, "There'd be uproar in the education world if we started educating kids separately on the colour of their skin. I don't think black kids would want it because they'd become isolated and ridiculed by their peers." As with Highbury Grove, he says his school prefers to work by "finding out what individual kids need and trying to meet it, which can mean taking individuals out of class or giving them special attention in class. That's what Highbury Fields does really well."

The debate over black boys mirrors one held 20 or 30 years ago - but in those days it was about girls doing poorly in science. Then, as now, the suggested remedy was segregation. Smithers recalls: "There were experiments that showed a boost in girls' performance at first, but when the experiment was continued for a number of years, it disappeared. Most attempts at segregation have had initial success that hasn't been sustained once it became normal practice."

Both Mooney and Jones point out that schools, like Britain as a whole, have changed out of recognition since most education critics sat behind a desk. Schools now use sophisticated techniques for measuring pupils' abilities and tracking how they perform, as well as providing wider opportunities for the less academically able.

"Good sixth forms don't just teach A-levels, as they used to," says Jones. "The system was always fine for the top academic students but there wasn't anything for the others. Now there is."

According to both schools, the biggest change would come not from new government programmes or tinkering with segregation but simply if more middle-class parents used them. "Historically, the middle-class in Islington don't send their kids to state schools," Mooney says.

So what makes for a good school? "Leadership," thinks Mooney. "We've had three very good heads in succession, and stable staff. They've got a rigour and determination to improve the education of girls from top to bottom of the school. They won't accept second best."

Jones adds: "There are no quick fixes. With inner-city schools that are challenging in their make-up, you need consistency and development over a long period of time."

For his part, Smithers confirms that "the quality of leadership in a school makes an enormous difference" but cautions: "There's a lot of emotion attached to education. People have strong feelings and the evidence is never really strong enough to overturn them. It's not like the physical universe, where our common sense tells us the world is flat but the evidence is conclusive that it's not. People always want to make simple comparisons between independent and state schools, or same-sex and co-ed, or ethnicities. Sadly, education rarely offers simple answers."


Islington, London N1

Status: Co-ed state school

GCSE success rate: 29%

Max Gamrat, 18

I think it's much better for girls but maybe boys are more difficult when there are no girls around. I'm not sure about racial segregation, although I think Trevor Phillips has a point. It's so divisive though - it would add to racial tension.

Ali Mohammed, 16

I'd definitely choose a mixed school - mainly because I would like to hang out with girls more. It doesn't really bother me that single-sex schools do better - it's just boring without girls. On race, I don't know anything about it.

Katian Brown, 16

I like going to a mixed school. I think that single-sex girls schools have too much bullying and fighting. Mixed schools do have a lot of sexual tension, though.

Tolla Aderibigbe, 18

I much prefer mixed schools. Why hang out with boys when you can be with girls?

Halil Eftcaln, 18

A mixed school is much better - it's more fun. I'm not bothered about mixed schools not being as good academically - my grades are really good anyway.


Islington, London N1

Status: Girls-only state school

GCSE success rate: 65%

Enkeleda Shpellza, 16

I would definitely choose a girls' school. The main reason is you learn better at a single-sex school. Boys are really noisy and they chat to each other too much in lessons.

Ayse Gartan, 18

At a mixed school boys do better, but that's not true with girls. I have lots of male friends, so I know how to deal with their stupidity. There is a lot of bullying at single-sex schools - but that's probably true of mixed schools as well. I'm not sure about race. It's a big problem.

Jennine Campbell, 18

My mum really wanted me to go to a single-sex school, because she has been to a single-sex school and was worried boys were bad news. I'm not sure though - single-sex girls' schools can be really bitchy and there's a lot of bullying.

Antonia Pain, 16

I would go to a single-sex school - it's just much more comfortable. If there are boys around the girls always want to impress them. And you can come to the school looking rough, and it's OK.

Interviews by Tom Anderson