Single-sex schools 'not the key to exam success'

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The Independent Online

Education Correspondent

Parents should not be swayed by single-sex schools' claims that they produce the best exam results, the authors of a new study said last night. Girls' and boys' schools top the league tables because they tend to attract the brightest pupils, not because of segregation.

Ambitious parents should look for the most selective school available to their children whether or not it is mixed-sex, they said.

The report, commissioned for pounds 20,000 by the co-educational group in the Headmasters' Conference (HMC) of independent schools, found that the ability of a school's intake was far more important than whether it was mixed- sex.

Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson, of Manchester University's Centre for Education and Employment Research, said the top schools, which tend to be single-sex for historical reasons, are like football teams in that they can attract talent from a wide area.

Suggestions that girls did better at subjects such as maths and science without boys present were probably explained by the fact that single-sex schools attract bright girls, they said. If exam results were improved by teaching boys and girls separately, as some schools now do, this was probably due to increased motivation at the start of a new project and would wear off after a time.

Professor Smithers said: "Parents who prefer co- education tend to see it as a better preparation for adult life. They can choose according to their preferences, confident that there are not special advantages in exam terms of single-sex or co-education."

In the past 10 years, many independent boys' schools have become co-educational. Out of 240 schools in the HMC 135 are now mixed for all age groups, with a further 30 taking girls in the sixth form. Local education authorities have followed a similar trend, with one-third now offering only mixed schooling.

League tables of examination results have brought good publicity for the single-sex schools which tend to come top, but now the co-educational lobby has decided to fight back. Yesterday Dr Robinson and Professor Smithers accused the girls' schools of "stonewalling" rather than allowing the researchers in and challenged them to open their results to scrutiny.

The researchers hope to continue their study by comparing the attainment of equally-bright girls in single-sex and in mixed schools, and also by looking at how pupils from each sector get on when they meet the opposite sex again at university.

Sheila Cooper, general secretary of the Girls' Schools Association, denied there had been any reluctance among its members to take part in the research. She also refuted claims that girls' schools were more selective than the top co-educational schools or that they drew from a wider area, but said their experience of teaching girls over a long period gave them an advantage.

"We feel girls' schools offer girls something over and above just good academic education. It is a question of providing a culture in which they can develop in confidence. Girls in girls' schools don't just have equal opportunities: they have every opportunity," she said.