Single-sex classes 'benefit mixed schools'

Mixed schools should teach boys and girls separately for some of the day, David Miliband, the School Standards minister, said yesterday.

Mixed schools should teach boys and girls separately for some of the day, David Miliband, the School Standards minister, said yesterday.

Mr Miliband described as "startling" the findings of a four-year study by Cambridge University, which found a marked improvement in results at a mixed school that switched to teaching boys and girls in separate classes.

He told the annual conference of the independent Girls' School Association (GSA), in Alton Towers, Staffordshire: "We need to recognise that in mixed-sex schools, girls and boys can prosper being taught separately for part of the time."

On Monday, Cynthia Hall, president of the GSA, which represents more than 200 schools, said girls in mixed schools suffered because they felt intimated by boys. She said she was infuriated by headteachers who claimed educating boys and girls together was "natural".

Single sex education had a "bright future", Mr Miliband said, but he dismissed the debate about whether it was better than coeducation as "ultimately sterile". "Instead of debate on the structure [of schools], we should learn the lessons of single-sex education and apply them in the coeducational sector," he said. "This is about recognising the differences between pupils, as well as the similarities."Single-sex classes can mean pupils are less likely to be distracted or to show off and will be more confident, he said.

Boys at the school in the study, which was not named, did better in languages and girls improved in maths and sciences when taught separately, the minister said. Overall achievement among boys rose from 68 per cent gaining five good GCSE passes in 1997 to 81 per cent this summer. Girls' performance rose from 68 per cent in 1997 to 82 per cent in 2004.

"I want to see schools learning from this record and this good practice and seeing how it can address particular issues in particular subjects in their own schools," Mr Miliband said.

He said the Department for Education would work with the Secondary Heads Association to discover the best ways of "tailoring" the organisation of classes to suit both sexes.

Mr Miliband also recommended that comprehensive schools consider setting up strict "girl-boy" seating plans for certain mixed-sex lessons. He said there were examples of schools that had achieved success by sitting girls next to boys, including Notley High School in Essex, where such a seating plan was introduced to tackle boys' under-performance but had the unexpected consequence of also improving girls' results.

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