Ian Nash reports on a growing trend towards segregation. One of Britain's largest comprehensive schools is considering single-sex science lessons in an effort to raise achievement and break the "boys only" stereotype of physics careers.
Senior staff at the 1,800-pupil Tavistock College in Devon have been tracking student performance across all age-groups and subjects. Peter Upton, the head, said: "I believe there is evidence to show that boys as much as girls can lose out from mixed teaching."
Researchers are deeply divided over the long-term benefits. But Tavistock is among a growing number of schools looking at single-sex teaching, according to the Institute of Physics.
Research by Bristol University for an IoP congress on science for girls this week added weight to the argument that girls do better taught apart, as their confidence increases.
As science continues its alarming decline, schools are under increasing Government pressure to get more girls into the physical sciences. The three-year Bristol study showed more than a six-fold increase in girls opting for A-level after segregated physics GCSE lessons. As soon as mixed lessons resumed, numbers plummeted.
Talks with the 27 science staff at Tavistock College begin next term, for a possible start on single-sex teaching in A-level physics within six to 18 months. If successful, it could be extended to lower years and other sciences.
Mr Upton said: "Most research focuses on boys being out-performed or girls failing to take up subjects. It is an exclusive debate about one group succeeding at the expense of another. We are looking to maximise the performance of both." Tavistock pupils did well in science, but the issues went wider than performance and affected long-term career choice, he said.
In 1985, Shenfield High School, Essex, launched a project to involve more girls. The sexes were segregated within the class and girls were required to sit at the front. The girls did well and more than a third opted for physics. But the boys deteriorated and played up.
But while more permanent segregation is being considered by some schools, particularly in physics, there is no question of returning to single-sex schools. "Young people live in a mixed-sex world and work in groups. Single-sex schools will provide a range of solutions to some problems while creating new problems of socialisation," said Mr Upton.
The Bristol research suggests that there is a significant increase in levels of achievement among girls in segregated groups. More than eight out of ten gained a GCSE grade A-C, compared with the national average of around 40 per cent. Cathy Wilson, IoP education director, warned, however, that such reforms had to be sensitively introduced.