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Girls on top after three-decade climb

The biggest survey of comprehensives to date shows all-female schools inching up the exam league, reports Susan Young

Girls' comprehensive schools achieve better exam results than equivalent boys' or mixed institutions, despite being more likely to have more pupils from traditionally disadvantaged groups.

According to a new survey, a higher proportion of girls' comprehensives have a majority of pupils from working-class backgrounds, higher percentages of pupils entitled to free school meals, and much higher percentages where students did not have English as a first language. Compounding their problems is the finding that more girls' schools are in a poor state of repair.

Despite this, the girls' schools had more students staying on after 16 and their five GCSE A-C scores of 41 per cent was considerably better than that achieved in boys' schools and slightly above that of mixed schools.

Moreover, girls' schools did better on vocational education than boys' schools: their sixth forms had three times the average numbers sitting for general national vocational qualifications and twice as many gaining a qualification.

The survey offers the traditional explanation for the differences -that Muslim families and those from certain Christian churches are likely to choose single-sex education for their daughters if possible.

Since 48 per cent of girls obtained five GCSE grades A to C last year compared with 39 per cent of boys, a finding that girls' schools score higher than boys' or mixed schools is not unexpected. But the Office of Standards in Education has also noted that the differences between boys' and girls' achievements is particularly marked in areas of urban disadvantage.

In what is believed to be the biggest survey of comprehensive education in Britain, authors Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty used completed questionnaires from 1,560 schools and colleges. The original response rate was around a third, but 267 institutions did not meet the project's criteria for comprehensive schools.

Benn and Chitty are long-standing supporters of comprehensive education: she was editor of Comprehensive Education for a quarter of a century, undertook similar surveys in 1968 and 1970, and is currently a college lecturer and president of the Socialist Education Association. Clyde Chitty was a comprehensive teacher for 20 years and is currently senior lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham and joint editor of Forum, a journal promoting comprehensive education.

The picture which emerges of comprehensive schools 30 years after their inauguration shows that setting and streaming are used increasingly with older pupils. While mixed-ability teaching was used for all subjects in Year 7 in just over half of the schools surveyed, only 17 per cent did so for pupils in Year 8. However, this compared with just four per cent of mixed-ability teaching for 11-year-olds in a 1968 survey. By Year 10, "the vast majority of comprehensive schools have abandoned mixed-ability teaching for all subjects", say the authors. Overall, just three per cent operate mixed-ability classes for all pupils in all subjects, while a further 35 per cent did so with up to four subjects setted.

However, the authors believe mixed-ability teaching has many advantages. "We have no evidence that GCSE results are significantly affected by the type of grouping chosen by a school or subject department; but . . . it seems clear that the use of mixed-ability or flexible groupings does have a favourable impact on the general ethos . . . [and] can be advocated for its positive social effects."

The survey also indicates that, while predominantly middle-class comprehensives show better academic results than those with a working-class intake, the performance of socially mixed schools is pushed closer to the higher-achieving end of the scale.

Comprehensives have changed a great deal in three decades. The emphasis on a house system for pastoral care has largely been eclipsed, and schools which once suffered from grammar schools creaming off higher-ability children may now have a similar problem with a new generation of selective schools targeting children on social rather than academic grounds.

Parental choice has meant that while some schools are full, and therefore free to select, many are not. Most schools had admissions policies, with the most common determinants being geographical proximity, siblings already attending or a feeder school system.

However, the schools most likely to be full in September 1994 when the questionnaires were sent out were those using "medical or social" criteria. Just 3.4 per cent of local authority schools cited this reason, compared with almost 60 per cent of grant-maintained schools and 42.2 per cent of voluntary controlled schools. A new category of "governors' special places" had also achieved importance, especially in GM schools where a "family connection" might win a child a place if its parents were governors, teachers, past pupils or connected in some other way.

In conclusion, the authors say that along with reasons to feel optimistic about comprehensives, they found "a severe and debilitating contradiction at the heart of the majority's education over the past 30 years . . . governments were ostensibly supporting the comprehensive education to which most schools and colleges were progressively becoming committed: while at the same time they were either failing to support it adequately or working hard to undermine its principles and practices . . ."

Thirty Years On: is comprehensive education alive and well, or struggling to survive? by Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty is published by David Fulton, Pounds 25.

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