The Big Question: Should children be taught in single-sex classrooms?

Why are we asking this now?

Because the new Schools minister, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, has called for more single-sex classes in schools, believing in particular that girls would learn from being taught science in single-sex classes – even in co-educational schools.

Why does she want this?

She believes that girls can feel intimidated in mixed classes because boys put their hands up and answer all the questions. Figures do tend to back her theory that fewer girls opt for science – possibly as a result of careers advice or a feeling that science is a boys' subject. The number of boys taking physics at A-level this summer was just over 21,000 while slightly more than 6,000 girls took the subject.

Is there any basisfor this belief?

Research conducted by the University of Cambridge would appear to support Mrs McCarthy-Fry. In a study published just three years ago, girls spoke of being more relaxed when removed from "social pressures" once boys were absent from the classroom. Typical of the comments they made were: "You don't need to act as though you're really cool, especially when you're not feeling as though you are!" and, "You feel braver and less embarrassed in offering answers, because there are no boys to make fun of you when you are wrong."

There is alternative evidence to consider. Research by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at London University's Institute of Education shows that boys who have been to single-sex schools are more likely to end up divorced (37 per cent of those going to boys' only comprehensives compared with 28 per cent from co-educational schools). "There does seem to be a picture of boys from single-sex schools finding it more difficult to sustain a relationship with the opposite sex."

Do Mrs McCarthy-Fry's comments resonate beyond science lessons?

Supporters of single-sex education would argue that they do. Some state schools, notably Shenfield comprehensive in Essex, have experimented with introducing single-sex classes for a variety of lessons. Maths is another example where girls are said to benefit from being taught in singlesex classes. International figures show that – while girls are ahead in all countries in reading by the age of 15 – they lag behind in 38 out of 40 countries in maths. As a result, it is argued, they are less likely to opt for it at A-level – particularly if they are in a co-educational school.

The exam league tables would tend to support the theory that both boys and girls do better in single-sex schools – as they dominate the top of the performance tables and have done so for years. But it is also true that all the leading performers are selective and that there are more selective single-sex schools than comprehensives – so this may be the reason for their success.

So can conclusions be drawn?

Research is inconclusive as to whether pupils do better in single-sex schools. Professor Alan Smithers, the respected researcher from the University of Buckingham, argues that it makes little difference to a youngster's academic performance whether their parents have sent them to a co-educational or single-sex school. "No consistent findings have been obtained in relation to performance, attitude or teachers' actions," he said. "This is perhaps not unexpected since trying to tease out the effects of individual classes among all the other influence is even more difficult than comparing schools."

What might be the impact of the minister's comments?

At the very least she has renewed the debate over whether girls' schools are better for girls than co-educational ones. They also follow on from what Vicky Tuck, the president of the Girls' School Association and principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, said at her association's annual conference last week – that the pendulum was swinging back in favour of single-sex education. Mrs Tuck said there was incontrovertible evidence to suggest that girls learnt differently to boys because of "neurological differences" in the development of the brain.

Research showed that girls warmed more to the modular approach adopted in GCSE and A-level exams whereas boys preferred to save their efforts for one-off end-of-year examinations. Further research has also suggested that improving reading performance in schools is more likely to be attained by offering boys and girls different books – which could only really be done if they were taught separately. Boys prefer action books while girls are happier with traditional classics from authors such as Jane Austen which dominate the book lists set out for the national curriculum.

Can single-sex classes be made compulsory?

The short answer to that is no. Mrs McCarthy-Fry has no powers to insist on either – although the very fact that the debate has been opened up again after four decades in which the number of single-sex state secondary schools has slumped from 2,500 to just 400 might persuade providers of the need for more single-sex schools. With the advent of the academies programmes, private sponsors are coming forward with their own proposals to sponsor state-financed independent schools.

In addition, the Conservatives have said they would adopt the Swedish voucher system – whereby parents are given a voucher to purchase a place for their child at any school they choose. This has led to the establishment of a new breed of independent "free" schools – some single sex. So far, there have not been any proposals for single-sex academies but the emphasis on parental choice could see that change.

A lot, though, may depend on how assiduously the debate is followed up from here. In other words, the ball is in the minister's court as to how she chooses to pursue this debate. An interesting question would be where does her boss, the Children's Secretary, Ed Balls, stand on the issue.

What about single-sex classes for boys?

The fervour is not quite the same. All the evidence points to the fact that, while single-sex education is popular for girls, the reverse is true for boys. Witness what has been happening to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the organisation which represents what were traditionally known as the 250 most elite boys' schools in the country – such as Westminster, Marlborough and Wellington.

The majority of them now admit girls – at least into the sixth form. As a result, the number of single-sex state schools has fallen by at least 130 in recent years. Some people believe that this has only happened because girls outperform boys in almost every subject at GCSE and A-level – so admitting them is bound to improve a school's performance in exam league tables.

So what will happen next?

Internationally, there has been a return to more single-sex schooling – the number of girls-only schools in the United States has risen by 40 per cent in the decade up to 2006. In the past, the trend of provision in countries such as the United States has been replicated in the UK.

So is single-sex education the answer?

Yes...

* Research shows that girls feel less intimidated when boys have left the classroom

* A glance at the exam league tables reveals the top places are taken by single-sex schools

* The take-up of subjects such as science and maths by girls at A-level is better in single-sex schools

No...

* There is no conclusive research to prove that girls do better when taught on their own

* The dominant single-sex schools are selective. That may be the real reason for their success

* Pupils fail to develop relationships with the opposite sex if they are taught in a single-sex environment

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Advisor - OTE £30,000

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Administration Assistant / Apprenticeship Industry

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity for an e...

Recruitment Genius: NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Private Training Provider off...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own