Ngaio Crequer visits a school that aims to improve results by teaching boys and girls aged 11 to 14 separately. Nothing much has changed in the playground banter of the girls and boys at the George Dixon grant-maintained school in Edgbaston, Birmingham. They still talk about Manchester United and their chances of winning the European Cup.
But within the classroom very much has changed. There is no banter, no teasing between the sexes, the heads are down and concentrating on the work.
The school is mixed but since last September the children have been taught in single-sex groups in Years 7, 8 and 9 (ages 11 to 14), and the atmosphere is different. Aspiring lawyer or businessman Yohan Nelson (aged 14) thinks the change has been "brilliant".
"Everyone is getting a lot more work done in the classroom. There are no distractions. There used to be a lot of tension, boys against girls. We seem to appreciate each other a lot more. I work much harder and do much more homework. We have always been good friends with the girls but we had little arguments.
"Sometimes the teachers would explain things and the girls would laugh, and then boys would laugh and I think that would hold us back. Now there's no reason to laugh. I think it has made both sides a bit more mature," he said.
The pressure to introduce single-sex teaching came from the parents, who approached the governing body. There are single-sex schools in the area, but some two miles away, not near enough for most families.
The 11-18 mixed comprehensive serves Handsworth, Soho and Ladywood, all areas of social and economic deprivation. The school's intake is largely Asian, followed by Afro-Caribbean, with less than 5 per cent white.
The school approached Ian Cleland, chief inspector of schools at the Dudley local education authority, to undertake a feasibility study. "They had a falling roll, which was putting the budget under pressure, and they thought they could protect the budget and become more popular if they went single sex. There was very strong pressure from the local community, especially concerning the girls, that the children should be taught separately," he says.
"They had two buildings and could easily teach girls in one and boys in another. They could not do it in the sixth form, because numbers were too small, or in key stage 4 because of options and because then the sexes should be mixing, but it could work in key stage 3 and that is what I advised.
"There were behaviour problems at the school. When you have classes of different kids you take the dynamics out of it. The staff were very positive. It has worked very well indeed."
Julian Souter, senior director at the school, is convinced that the policy is sound for educational reasons. "We recognise that exam results are better in single-sex schools, so we saw this as part of our push to improve standards. "
At Year 7, when pupils enter the school, 85 per cent have a reading age two years below their chronological age. At the end of five years, 16 per cent are achieving five or more GCSEs, and the school reckons it is making progress in terms of value added.
Nevertheless, it realises it has much more to do, and that is why it has invested in the single-sex policy. "Research has shown that boys and girls achieve higher levels of attainment when taught separately. The most widely accepted explanation for this is that, in the early years of secondary education the maturation levels of boys and girls are very different and this affects their needs and performance in the classroom," says Mr Souter.
Certainly, the experiment seems to be working. In a recent survey 73 per cent of parents and teachers thought pupils behaved better, and 58 per cent of students thought they made better progress.
Jaspal Dhanjal, head of community languages, says: "Teaching strategies are the same for both boys and girls as we have to deliver the national curriculum. Performance is better because behaviour is so much better. It is at the end of key stage 3 that students start to take more interest in their social skills. We have not found any disadvantages in this system yet."
The parents seem very happy with the change. Mohamed Manir has a 15-year-old son at the school.
"The arguments in favour are educational because when I send him to school I want him to concentrate to the utmost on what is being taught. But there is a moral side. Culturally their upbringing is segregated."
The school's progress has been recognised by the Office for Standards in Education which gave it a very good inspection report, praising behaviour and motivation, with particularly good progress in lessons.
The quality of teaching is at the top of national averages with 87.9 per cent of lessons satisfactory or better and 100 per cent of lessons in the sixth form satisfactory or better.
But one aspect the school must look at is improving the performance of boys. "It is a matter of concern," says Mr Souter. "They lag behind girls in all subjects. We think we are better able to deal with this under our new arrangement. The next step for us is to look at different learning and teaching styles."
Now the school hopes its message will get out. Mr Souter uses the metaphor of a bamboo: you plant it, water it, nothing happens for years and then suddenly it sprouts 12 feet.
In the playground they are still discussing football. Just like in any other school the boys say the girls only think they know about football; and the girls know how wrong they are.