Are boys good for schoolgirls?

Coeducation benefits both sexes, says Graham Smallbone, headmaster at a mixed school
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Received wisdom has it that academically co-education is fine for boys, less so for girls. Professor Alan Smithers' research attempts to compare like with like, replacing anecdote with analysis, and it comes as no surprise to me that the conclusions agree with what we have found to be the case for some time. Girls and boys are not disadvantaged by being educated side by side.

Many former boys' schools are now taking girls, particularly into the sixth form. All of these schools appear in the league tables as "co-educational". It is easy for researchers to make a comparison with single-sex schools by using these schools rather than attempting to choose only those schools which believe in co-education. "Co-add" is not the same as "co-ed".

Despite the obvious, but often forgotten, dangers of arguing from a single example, it may be worthwhile to look at a fully co-educational school and see how well the 500 boys and girls fare. Oakham first accepted girls in 1971. After one year of sixth-form girls only, girls were admitted at all levels and by the late 1980s their numbers equalled those of the boys. By this time too, the number of women in the common room had grown and they had come to occupy senior posts: housemistress, obviously, but also heads of department, including Information Systems, president of the Common Room and officer in charge of shooting.

Before a comparison of A- level and GCSE results can be made with other schools, a researcher will need to know something about our intake. Most will come from fairly affluent home backgrounds which strongly favour equal treatment of boys and girls. The 13-plus candidates will come mostly from mixed prep schools and the 11-plus entry from mixed day schools. From their earliest time at the school they are used to sitting with members of the opposite sex in the same classroom and, although they rarely choose to share a desk, they make music, act and debate together and share similar experiences.

Entry is selective and the requirements are identical for both boys and girls. The pass marks are based on the need to accept into the school those who will cope with an academic syllabus and who will carry on to higher education. Successful candidates are by no means only those destined for A and B grades in future exams.

We are convinced that we provide excellent opportunities for a broad education totally suited to a successful unsegregated life beyond school and university. Former pupils should be able to communicate with members of the opposite sex on equal terms, and to take charge of and to carry out instructions from others in a community where there are successful men and women.

All the staff and pupils would agree with this ideal. Many people agree with us that such an education is desirable, but some argue that it is at the expense of high grades for girls. Our experience is that they are wrong.

The A- level results of the past five years would suggest that the achievements of our sixth-form girls have not been diminished by working alongside boys. It has been argued that boys do better than girls in scientific subjects. In a large, well-endowed school the opportunities for laboratory work are likely to be better than those in a small school. Girls have every opportunity to study physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and further maths, and in 1994 girls obtained 25 A grades in these subjects. Over the past 10 years equal numbers of boys and girls have received offers at Oxbridge.

In 1994 the girl candidates at GCSE achieved rather better results overall than the boys. This possibly reflects the earlier maturity of girls. It certainly does not suggest, as I have seen in print, that girls fare less well than boys in mixed classes because they are embarrassed to ask questions. A (male) teacher's experience of teaching Biology to mixed classes is that the girls know how to gain the attention they need and are quite willing to draw attention to the intellectual shortcomings of their male counterparts.

Further myths associated with co-education refer to bullying, teasing and precocious sex. The degree of supervision and the number of adults present in a school where boys and girls grow up alongside each other means such occurrences are rare and less harmful than the prurient attitudes common in single-sex schools.

I am firmly of the belief that our girls perform as well in public examinations as they would had they gone to a single-sex school, even one as well equipped as Oakham. They will have had every encouragement to develop the confidence and spirit of enquiry neccessary for success and happiness.

The writer is headmaster of Oakham School, Rutland.