'Just how would segregation help the lads?'

Boys need schools without girls argues Andrew Halls, head of a boys' school. Oh, no they don't says Sophie Grove who has grown up in coeducational schools. Who do you agree with?
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Girls are doing better than boys at GCSE and A-level and it is spreading alarm. Suddenly, everyone from politicians to academics are asking how to give boys a better chance.

Girls are doing better than boys at GCSE and A-level and it is spreading alarm. Suddenly, everyone from politicians to academics are asking how to give boys a better chance.

But the answers emerging are worryingly simple.They can be summed up this way: "Develop boys on their own: away from the distractions of the presence of girls of their age." Boys are quite suddenly believed to thrive in their own segregated male cocoon.

Where, in all this, is the defence of coeducation? So far, we have heard a resounding silence from the advocates of integrated schooling. There has been no voice to promote advantages of coeducation.

The value of existing and maturing together as boys and girls and then young men and women in a learning environment has been strangely ignored. It is as if the past 40 years of pioneering unisex schooling had been a disaster which we must race to correct in the interests of establishing the predominance of boys in the educational league tables.

Until the 1960s almost all English schools were single-sex. Primary schools tended to combine both girls and boys along side each other, but as the adolescent years of education ensued, children were segregated and firmly slotted into single-sex environments, away from the distractions that could divert them from learning.

Glamourised, mysterious and misshapen views of the opposite sex grew out of a lack of everyday contact. You only have to talk to our parents' generation, brought up from 11 to 18 without seeing someone of the opposite sex in school, to find out what it was all about. Girls and boys were strangers to each other in everyday life.

Since the unification of the sexes in secondary education, girls have done gradually better. It's not hard to see why. In the first and second years at secondary school, boys are weedier, shorter and generally more dozy than the girls. It's a vast generalisation, but between the ages of 11 and 14, girls have it all their own way in coed schools - if only on size alone. It's hard to be in awe of someone you have faced down in the playground for three years.

Which just about forms the groundwork for the mild shock of seeing boys sprout up around you like so many force-fed runner beans. I distinctly remember feeling immensely powerful in those first years. We girls were bigger, tougher, and the boys were careful how they dealt with us. Sexism was ruthlessly exterminated. I remember my lovely friend Nell thumping a boy so hard it winded him because he called her a slag. Brutal, it was - but effective, and in a way, equal.

By the time they got to the fourth form and shot past us in size, they had genuine respect. We had them well-trained and there was no nonsense. And we all knew each other as individuals, not sex objects. Just as well. The gender split that produced a macho environment has been phased out of education by coeducation. The male élitist "old boys' network" reinforced by a single-sex environment has in the past bordered on misogyny. It's a good thing it's gone - but is it just lurking in the wings, waiting for a comeback?

The idea of rejecting women as social and intellectual equals has only just been seen off, and it looks like it could appear under a different guise of "improving the boys' chances". In my view, boys have quite enough problems without giving them a unrealistic environment to grow up in. How would segregation help to improve the difficulties of lads? We live in a coed world, after all.

I am in the final of year of an education system which has been coed and comprehensive. I am not "academic" and there have been dusty patches where I have wobbled quite a bit. But at least I have had a realistic education with both genders. My schoolmates and I may not have the whole answer to life in the modern world, but I really do feel that we have a more realistic grasp than the many girls - and boys - we meet, who have been wrapped up, away from half of their contemporaries.

It is quite true that they look on each other with rather a touching awe that we simply don't have. Girls I know from all-girls' schools tend to get rather sadly over-excited every time any spotty male hovers into view. No wonder - it's a bit of a novelty to be with the opposite sex. I've seen them, and they are never really relaxed - boys have seen us as we are, and we are much more realistic about them.

And when we eventually do arrive in the working world, I think that we will be more than ready to take on the opposite sex. We have no illusions about them at all, but equally, we are pretty fond of them.

The writer is a student at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge