The new Schools minister advocates a return to single-sex education to get girls more interested in subjects like science and engineering.
In her first interview since replacing Lord Adonis in the Prime Minister's recent reshuffle, Sarah McCarthy-Fry told The Independent that she was concerned about getting more girls to opt for science and engineering at school – and thought separating the sexes for lessons in co-educational schools might be the answer.
She said: "Girls do much better in science in single-sex classes. They sometimes feel intimidated in mixed- sex classes with the boys hogging the limelight and putting their hands up to answer all the questions."
She said she believed the drive to improve take-up of science in particular, could succeed if single-sex lessons were introduced in co-educational schools – as well as having more girls in single-sex schools. "I don't see why that couldn't happen," she said.
Her call comes just a week after Vicky Tuck, the president of the Girls' School Association and principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, predicted a return to separate-sex schooling after four decades of numbers dwindling from 2,500 single-sex secondary schools in the 1960s to just 400 today.
Mrs Tuck said more people were aware girls learnt differently from boys due to "neurological differences" in the developments of their brains.
Only a handful of mixed state schools – notably Shenfield, a comprehensive in Essex – have introduced single-sex classes. Ministers have been studying the impact of the changes.
Mrs McCarthy-Fry added that she believed both science and engineering could be presented to girls as an option in a more "girl-friendly" manner.
"If you talk to girls about what they want to do, many say they want to go into caring professions – like nursing," she said. "But you could present science and engineering in a way girls could relate better to in careers advice.
"For instance, you could argue that if you really care about the environment you can save lives and if you're interested in health you could design an incubator which could save a child's life."
Mrs McCarthy-Fry – who has inherited most of Lord Adonis's brief except for the Government's flagship academies programme, which has transferred to Jim Knight – is anxious to give priority to encouraging more youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds to consider university as an option, sowing the seeds of participation in higher education from their days at primary school.
"There was a study of children leaving primary school asking if they were thinking of going to university," she said. "Fifty per cent of the class said they were thinking of going to university – and 50 per cent weren't.
"When it was followed up, half of the ones who said they were thinking of going to university went – and not a single one who said they weren't did. We need to get at that half who hadn't thought about it and try to persuade them to consider it as an option."
Mrs McCarthy-Fry, the MP for Portsmouth North since 2005, backed an initiative at a school near her serving a tough inner city area which had introduced one-to-one "personalised learning" sessions for children not expected to get five A* to C grades at GCSE including maths and English.
"If they're not predicted to get anything and they can be helped to get a good D or E pass, you can convince them there is something that they can achieve and that there is absolutely no reason – with more help – why they shouldn't go on to university," she said.