Girls could do better -away from the boys

British pupils' performance in maths is way down the world league. The key to improvement, at least for girls, is single-sex classes.
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The Independent Online

Why does Britain do so poorly in world league tables when it comes to maths? As in football and tennis, we are now anchored firmly in the bottom half alongside the also-rans.

Why does Britain do so poorly in world league tables when it comes to maths? As in football and tennis, we are now anchored firmly in the bottom half alongside the also-rans.

According to some experts, our culture or class system contributes to our dismal performance. I have a suggestion, however, which would help raise our game and push us up the league - more single-sex education for certain subjects.

I realise such a call will be unpopular with a lot of teachers, educationalists and politicians. But having worked in this area for more than 10 years, I have observed girls do much better at maths and science when there are no boys around.

They currently outperform boys in all subjects, but they do even better when they are taught in single-sex classes. I am not arguing for complete single-sex education from 11, but if we want to improve our maths, science and technology record, we should try more single-sex teaching in an area which is vital to our future economic well-being as a nation.

When I took over the Wise (Women Into Science and Engineering) Campaign 12 years ago, the teaching of girls in single-sex classes for subjects such as maths, sciences and what was then known as technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork, was seen as one of the ways to encourage young women into careers in science and engineering.

We believed that girls' poor performance in these subjects was due to the boys' interference, hogging the equipment and making a nuisance of themselves if the teachers did not let them carry out the experiments, while the girls quietly took notes or cleared up.

But apart from a few pilots, single-sex teaching is not widespread. Most girls still do not opt for A-levels in physics, chemistry and technology subjects, let alone degrees in them. Explanations for this depressing situation range from: "Girls are good at science and technology, but perform even better in subjects such as languages and English literature and therefore opt for subjects in which they excel", to "they do not see science and engineering as careers for women".

So what should we do? Can we learn from women who already have chosen to enter science and engineering? Many did attend single sex schools and explain that opting for science or technical subjects was easier because "they really were subjects offered to girls".

Under the national curriculum, all subjects are supposed to be available to all. Gone are the days of the inflexible option where the choice of home economics prevented the choice of technical subjects.

The balance between male and female teachers in science and technical subjects is improving, although one should worry about the scarcity of women in high positions compared to men. Schools are certainly much better at inviting role models into schools and the media provide eye-catching examples like Carol Vorderman and Heather Couper.

Girls always do better when they are independent of boys. So we come down to the issue of self-esteem and confidence. Sending their children to single-sex schools does pose a dilemma to many parents. For the rest of their lives their children will have to interact, work and live with people of the opposite sex, so why not start at school? But single-sex classes for only two or three subjects should not be so controversial.

I would personally argue that girls would gain amazing self-esteem and confidence in subjects such as maths, science and technology if they were taught away from the boys.

Offering such an environment is exactly what the Wise Vehicle Programme provides. A fleet of buses have been converted into mobile technology classrooms where girls sample technology for one and a half hours, away from the boys. Comments from teachers range from: "I have never seen so many girls so happy and involved in anything - let alone technology", to "the girls returned showing much greater confidence and enthusiasm in science classes". Several girls said they found it easier to work in a small group without the boys and would welcome the opportunity of doing it again. Some girls said the experience made them seriously consider science and technology as a career option. "It has probably been the best science lesson I've ever had," said one. "It gives girls a chance to work things out for themselves without boys telling them they are thick!" said another.

So is single-sex teaching for maths, science and engineering the answer? Time will tell. Changing the culture will take time. Surely it is worth a try.

The writer is national manager of the Women Into Science and Engineering Campaign, launched in 1984 by the Engineering Council and the Equal Opportunities Commission. Today it is supported by the Engineering Council, the Engineering and Marine Training Authority and the Engineering Employers Federation