Boys will only flourish in single-sex schools

28th March 2008 at 00:00
Waiting in an airport lounge, I watched as a young boy noisily climbed over everything in sight, while his sister sat quietly and read a book. Many parents will recognise such behaviour. As the head of an independent girls' school, it got me thinking about boys.

Research by Dr Jeremy Swinson, honorary lecturer in educational psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, suggested teachers "assume" boys will behave badly and discipline them five times more than girls. "Perhaps some boys get disenchanted with lessons because they are being told off too much," he said.

Education in the UK continues to fail a large proportion of our pupils, the majority of whom are boys.

In the second half of the last century the number of single-sex schools declined. To take advantage of economies of scale, schools became bigger. Bigger almost always meant the amalgamation of successful boys' and girls' schools to form large co-educational establishments.

To justify this, much has been written about the benefit of educating girls and boys together, but there is little evidence to uphold this view. The decision was usually finance-driven rather than educational.

"Girls provide a civilising effect" is an oft-quoted reason for schools going co-ed. However, evidence suggests that the majority of boys do not benefit from being taught in "civilised" environments. Schools offer little opportunity for physical activity, and boys' natural boisterousness is too often branded as poor behaviour.

Yet this so-called poor behaviour is celebrated. Competitive men are upheld as role models. Men who never miss Top Gear love it for its maleness. Clarkson makes no apologies for his macho humour, his fierce competitiveness and apparent insensitivity, and men (and women!) love him. While his TV persona harks back to a simpler time of gender division and expectation, his popularity highlights a divide between boys and girls that, within the sterile modern day of political correctness, we try to deny. The sooner we acknowledge that boys and girls are different and need to be taught in different environments, the sooner we shall see improvements in boys' achievement. In 2007, 66 per cent of girls achieved five or more A*-C grades compared to 57.1 per cent of boys.

Among independent schools, there are now only 133 all-boys' schools that are members of the Independent Schools Council (ISC). Of these, only 61 educate boys beyond the age of 13. In the maintained sector only 9 per cent of the GCSE cohort attend boys' schools.

Girls are luckier. Many girls' schools remain true to their beliefs and there are still 185 independent all-girls' schools within the ISC. Of these, 152 educate girls beyond 13. In the maintained sector, 13 per cent of 15-year-old girls are educated in girls' schools. Their contribution to the gender gap is significant, with all-girls' schools dominating the top positions in the league tables. Boys and girls may want similar outcomes but they reach their goals in different ways. Educationists must be willing to re-examine single-sex education that will provide the challenges boys require to achieve their full potential.

Rosalind Hayes, Headteacher of Malvern St James, Worcestershire.

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