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Ulster results challenge advantage of 'girls only'

Further evidence that girls may not benefit as much as has been claimed by being taught in single-sex schools has emerged from a study of examination performance in Northern Ireland.

Peter Daly and Ian Shuttleworth of Queen's University, Belfast, looked at exam results and entry in maths, a subject in which girls are often said to underperform if taught alongside boys.

Re-examining the results of three surveys of Northern Irish pupils, they found that even during the 1980s girls were just as likely as boys to have been entered for a public examination in maths at 16. In more recent years girls have been significantly more likely than boys to sit GCSE maths, irrespective of whether they were in single-sex or co-educational schools.

As far as achievement was concerned, the surveys showed girls catching up with boys. In terms of results, there was little difference between girls' schools and co-educational schools, with boys' schools doing slightly worse. Single-sex schooling does not seem to offer significant advantages in public examinations in maths for Northern Irish pupils, the researchers said, echoing the recent report from Professor Alan Smithers at Manchester University, who said that the girls' schools dominated league tables primarily because they attracted the most able pupils.

Daly and Shuttleworth concluded: "Headline-grabbing schools, particularly girls' schools, are often 'special' in terms of the higher ability and social background of the bulk of their pupils. When allowances are made for these school-type differences, claims about the superior schooling offered are difficult to substantiate in terms of examination results."

Some cause for concern about girls' performance in maths was raised by Maria Goulding of the University of Durham who has assessed the impact of reduced maths coursework on performance in local schools. Coursework has widely been assumed to increase girls' achievement but teachers given the option of 100 per cent or 20 per cent coursework exams have apparently been choosing GCSE syllabuses regardless of gender effects.

Public examination entry and attainment in mathematics in single-sex and co-educational schools, Peter Daly and Ian Shuttleworth, Queen's University Belfast. GCSE Coursework in Mathematics in 1994, Maria Goulding, University of Durham School of Education.

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