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Gender setting

Report on the controlled trial single-gender teaching of modern languages in Year 9 at Stratton Upper School in Biggleswade.

IN Stratton, as in the rest of the country, our key stage 3 and our GCSE boys' results in modern foreign languages have always been well below those in other subjects. We decided last year to conduct a controlled trial to compare the performance of boys and girls in single-gender groups with that in mixed-gender groups.

Predictably, the boys' groups proved to be the more challenging to teach. The atmosphere was much livelier and the boys' attention span invariably shorter. Teaching styles soon needed to be adapted: we introduced a larger number and greater variety of short activities in each lesson, a quicker pace and more "entertainment", often in the form of competitive games.

In the girls' groups, the atmosphere was much calmer and more business-like. They settled down more quickly to all tasks and worked largely without distraction, on the same extended task longer, and they participated more readily in class oral work than in the mixed-gender groups.

In the mixed-gender groups, the girls undoubtedly had a civilising influence on the boys, the level of calm tending to be commensurate with the proportion of girls in the group. Perhaps the main losers in the mixed-gender groups were less able girls in the lower sets where there were more boys.

Pupils completed a questionnaire. Most girls (64 per cent) preferred being in a single-gender group, heir reasons being that they were not "laughed at" and were, therefore, less embarrassed to offer an answer; they could concentrate better and generally worked harder. A staggering 85 per cent of girls felt that they had made better progress.

The boys were not happy about being in single-gender groups. Only 19 per cent preferred it. They felt boys tended to "muck around" more, that they were noisier and less work was done. Some said simply that it did not "feel right" without girls.

Comparing KS3 SATs results supported our findings. Forty-six per cent of girls in single-gender groups achieved either a level 5 or 6 compared with 15 per cent in mixed-gender groups. A larger percentage of boys achieved higher levels in mixed-gender groups than in single-gender groups. Girls in both cohorts performed dramatically better than boys but especially in single-gender groups.

Although our aim had been to improve the performance of boys, it was, ironically, the girls who benefited. This year, we have reverted to mixed-gender groups except for two low-ability boys' groups. Here we can concentrate on their particular needs, employing the successful strategies developed last year. In the mixed-gender groups there are slightly more girls than boys and all the boys have been seated next to a girl, thus creating the conditions where both boys and girls can strive to achieve their full potential.

Neil Taylor is head of languages at Stratton Upper School, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

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