Sporting chance

9th October 1998 at 01:00
When timetabling constraints forced Hollingworth High School in Rochdale, Greater Manchester, to abandon single-sex French classes in Year 7, the head of modern languages, Val McDonald, viewed their demise - especially the all-boy lessons - with regret.

"I can't say the all-boy lessons won all the boys round, but they certainly influenced quite a few. We'd practise numbers, for example, by linking them to the scores of French rugby teams. We also did various activities that allowed them out of their seats. We have 65-minute lessons, and boys don't like sitting still for that long."

A key focus was writing, recognised as a weak area for many boys. Strategies were devised to practise and reinforce basic concepts. Word processing proved a particular asset in heightening motivation and encouraging attention to detail.

Although pupils reverted to mixed groups in Year 8, the benefits of the previous year were sustained. "A lot of boys lack social and organisational skills," Ms McDonald explains. "Because we drummed in good habits in Year 7 without wasting the girls' time, they knew what was expected of them when they moved on."

Hollingworth High is one of several schools that participated in research conducted by Amanda Barton of Warwick University, who for the past three years has been evaluating the impact of separating boys and girls on motivation and achievement. She hopes to publish her findings, based on questionnaires, individual interviews and many hours of classroom observation, early next year.

Her data reveals that, while most of the girls were initially reluctant to relinquish the "fun factor" provided by boys' antics, most acknowledged they worked better in an all-female environment. Boys, too, often admitted to working harder, although they took longer to adjust.

Ms Barton's research also indicates that boys' susceptib-ility to peer pressure is recognised by everyone except themselves. In questionnaires, only one in four placed importance on "looking good in front of the rest of the class" and in interview most of them dismissed it. But this was not borne out by Ms Barton's observations. In one instance, compliments about a piece of work were accepted with an embarrassed grunt; elsewhere she observed Year 9 and Year 10 boys loudly proclaiming their ignorance when this was blatantly untrue.

It is this side to boys' characters that has prompted President Kennedy School and Community College in Coventry, another participant in Amanda Barton's research, to introduce two single-sex groups in Year 10 last year.

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