Single-sex schools get the best pupils

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GIRLS' SCHOOLS do well in exam league tables because they have clever pupils, not because they are single-sex, according to a new review of research evidence.

The findings of researchers at London University's Institute of Education come just before the publication of A-level and GCSE results tables, in which girls' schools have excelled for many years.

Since the introduction of league tables, girls' schools have used their exam results to argue the case for single-sex education.

But Jannette Elwood and Caroline Gipps found that social class, ability and the history and tradition of the schools had a much greater impact on the results girls achieve.

They concluded that "girls' schools in both the independent and state sectors are well-placed in the performance tables because girls do better than boys generally in examinations at the end of compulsory schooling."

Nor, they argue, is there any conclusive evidence that the popular practice of teaching boys and girls in separate classes for some subjects raises achievement.

They reviewed research evidence on single-sex education for the past 20 years both in this country and abroad. The findings, drawn from an Equal Opportunities Commission study in the early Eighties to a recent important study by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson, suggest that single-sex education has little impact on girls' academic performance. Most studies in Australia, the United States and Ireland have reached similar conclusions.

However, many parents are enthusiastic about single-sex education for their daughters for other reasons. "Parents preferring single-sex education tend to believe that, in the absence of boys, girls develop more self- confidence, are more likely to encounter female role models in leadership and traditionally male subjects and are less likely to choose stereotyped subjects," the report said. By contrast, boys-only schools are unpopular with parents.

The researchers say that the evidence supports parents' views that single- sex schools and classes both do improve girls' self-esteem.

An Australian research project found that girls in co-educational schools were much more likely than boys to rank themselves in the bottom half of the class.

In single-sex schools girls were as likely as boys to put themselves among the high-flyers. In addition, girls at single-sex schools are more likely to choose to study maths and science and boys in single-sex schools are more likely to continue studying music and languages.

The number of single-sex state schools in this country has fallen from about 2,000 in the late Sixties to around 400 now. But the separation of boys and girls for some subjects has become more popular during the past decade.

The report says that there is some evidence of the positive effects of such separation but warns against "quick fixes. What we are seeing in the current panic about boys' underachievement is the strategy of single- sex teaching being used to counteract the poorer results of boys in English.

"These initiatives are, however, being carried out with no supporting evidence that such strategies in themselves actually improve performance."

Both the authors of the review have recently moved from the Institute of Education to other jobs.