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Sex and the joys of single life

Separating the boys from the girls is proving a success at a mixed school in Kent, writes Sarah Stokes

It's fourth period on a Thursday at Walmer school and time for Year 10 English. The boys go one way, the girls another. "Everyone wants to get on and do the work," says one boy. "There are fewer distractions with no girls around."

Raising boys' achievement involves understanding what motivates boys and how they learn best, as well as improving their attitude to learning. One strategy being used in some mixed schools involves teaching single-sex classes. Walmer is an 11-18 mixed community school on the east Kent coast, with 848 students and a fairly even gender ratio. The school's academic performance has improved dramatically over the past five years, with the proportion of students achieving five A*-C GCSEs jumping from 29 per cent in 1998 to 59 per cent in 2002. One reason for this is the focus on raising boys' achievement.

"Students arrive in Year 7 with equal attainment," explains deputy head Paul Ridings. "By the end of key stage 3, girls are miles ahead in English, far ahead in maths, and not quite dominating in science. By key stage 4, improvement overall is by girls. Single-sex teaching began in maths four years ago and in English a year later, where it benefits both sexes."

In 2002, GCSE results improved dramatically with 35 per cent of boys achieving A*-C grades in English compared with 23 per cent the year before.

Also significant was the rise in girls' attainment - from 56 per cent to 82 per cent achieving A*-C grades.

"We didn't realise the girls' results would improve so much," says Charlotte Davey, deputy head of English and head of media. "At first, we felt we'd failed because the girls had outperformed the boys so much. Then we looked at the boys' results and realised that both sexes had benefited."

It's a similar story at Moulsham high school in Chelmsford, Essex, where pupils are separated for all key stage 3 classes and key stage 4 English, maths and science. Teachers are encouraged to have structured teaching for boys, while girls work more independently.

Headteacher Chris Nichols says: "Everything we have done has raised girls' achievement as well. The gap has remained - in fact it has increased slightly since the early days of GCSE, but our five Ato C grades for boys and girls is around 70 per cent, well above the national average."

Walmer already set by ability, so creating single-sex groups has added another dimension to teaching. Staff in the English department say there is no blueprint for doing this. "Look carefully at your students and do it on a year-by-year basis," says Ms Davey. Not every class in a year's cohort needs to be mixed.

Gender ratio, classroom management and attitude are as important as ability when it comes to arranging the groups. "Some of the boys have found themselves in the top set for the first time. Before, they wouldn't have made it, as the ratio was two-thirds girls and a third boys," says Ms Davey.

Seeing themselves in an equal set to the girls is highly motivating. "Most feel they're doing well and are being pushed. Teaching single-sex groups has made us focus on what works best for the boys - and what's good for the girls. So we now make more conscious decisions about pace, choice of texts, student groupings and ways of motivating them."

Exam results may demonstrate success, but what effect does segregation have on teaching and learning? Is a different curriculum being taught in each classroom? Nothing so extreme, seems to be the verdict. "You can teach girls anything, but you can only teach boys certain things. Girls can cope with a wider range and can absorb more," says English teacher Paul Pollard.

Teaching a single-sex group allows for a more tailored curriculum; the topics and materials chosen are more likely to be relevant and interesting. An example of this is the slant on Romeo and Juliet being taken with a Year 10 boys' group. "We're looking at the theme of conflict.

It's a lot better than studying the theme of love - it has more energy," explains one student.

Do boys and girls have their own learning styles? "Girls can perform longer tasks, whereas boys respond better to shorter ones with more pace," says Ms Davey, who has recently chosen a Jane Austen novel over a short story collection for her GCSE girls' group. "Boys respond well to short-term targets and the competitive side of things. So I grade every piece of work they do."

Students are positive and their confidence has been boosted. "With girls, you feel you can say anything. It's less intimidating - you feel at home," says one Year 10 girl. The so-called "peacock" behaviour displayed by some boys is also misplaced in a single-sex group. "They do things on an academic level rather than a social level now," says Mr Pollard. The students acknowledge that the opposite sex offers different viewpoints, but feel there is enough time to interact at other times of the day.

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