The most important lessons for a girl

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I hardly know anyone from my parents' generation downwards who went to anything other than a single- sex school. If you had asked me several years ago, I would have said that girls should most certainly go to single- sex schools, as I did. But I have on my desk prospectuses for local girls' and mixed schools for my daughter, who is about to be 11.

So I took more than a passing interest in the news that Shenfield School in Brentwood, Essex, a mixed secondary with 1,000 pupils, is to separate girls and boys for lessons between entry at 11 up to 16. Peter Osborne, its headteacher, says the 'evolutionary, exciting' changes, agreed by governors and backed by staff, stem from research and examination results showing how girls, especially, thrive in single-sex schools.

Dr Osborne clearly has his eye on the exceptional results achieved by girls at nearby Colchester and Chelmsford County High schools. His action - refreshing and open- minded - demonstrates dramatically how the widely published national exam league tables are challenging schools to become more competitive and performance-

related. All the parents I know are turning to them with great interest, seeking out the improving state schools as a way of avoiding crippling fees. It is healthy to see the way a monolithic state sector is becoming more diverse.

The Shenfield experiment will be closely monitored, and it will be fascinating to watch what happens. The more I think about it, the more it seems extraordinary that the idea of mixed-entry secondary schools teaching boys and girls separately has not been devised earlier. Shenfield's model may well prove to be a pragmatic, very British, half-way house.

It is quite clear that adolescent girls can be crowded out by boys in areas such as science, maths, computers and technology: Shenfield already segregates the science lessons, after noticing the way the boys dominated and girls retreated. I remember with relief going to an all- girls school at 11 and savouring the quiet studiousness of the place, which certainly helped me with my lessons.

Some, of course, will counter that this is all very old- fashioned, a move back to grim Victorian schools, with separate entrances for boys and girls. The National Union of Teachers says the school's move appears to create 'an artificial environment'. But all schools are artificial societies to some extent. All have social as well

as educational purposes and consequences. All Shenfield is saying is that its primary task is to educate all pupils to the best standards possible.

My children are all in single-sex junior schools. But the more I experience life, the more I have doubts about continuing this. While exam results and female role models, such as headmistresses, are useful, the world outside school, whether at college, at work or at play, is mixed - and largely still run by men.

Grade As at 18 are not the be-all and end-all; it is what you do with those qualifications that counts. Girls' schools can be such rarefied and artificial environments that, although they may breed confident achievers on their own terms, these young women are not necessarily going to survive very well in the real world. There you have to live and work alongside men and might even find yourself disadvantaged by your schooling.

I have been noticing how smart parents are switching their girls into mixed sixth- forms and sixth-form colleges. The problem has been, of course, that the trade has been all one way, with boys' schools letting in girls on their terms, rather than girls' schools opening up to boys.

When the BBC asked pupils at Shenfield what they thought, they were cautious, pointing to the value of having a different perspective on issues provided by the opposite sex. If Shenfield manages it properly, there should be plenty of opportunities for boys and girls to mix in debates, assemblies and school social events. It is possible that it might provide the best of both worlds for that very fraught age group of 11 to 16. Of course, it's an imperfect solution in an imperfect world. But if there was a Shenfield in my area I'd most probably be a customer.