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Hands up if you want to be co-ed

06 June 2014

'Academisation' has opened the door to the adoption of different styles of learning. Priscilla Chadwick considers approaches to teaching the different sexes


No distractions: year 11 girls taking part in a science lesson

No distractions: year 11 girls taking part in a science lesson

A FOREST of hands went up in my Year 9 RE class. I surveyed the adolescent characters in front of me. Whom should I invite to answer my question?

It immediately dawned on me that the overwhelming majority of hands belonged to boys, impatiently competing with each other to give their opinions. Why so few girls? What were they doing - writing notes to each other? Planning their weekend's social engagements? They seemed attentive enough, just not prepared to risk giving a wrong answer in front of the boys, or each other.

There was a time when single-sex schools were the norm, and co-education was considered dangerously progressive. Now, single-sex schools are a small minority of national provision, even in the independent sector - although the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has selected a girls-only Anglican comprehensive for his daughter's secondary education.

Gender equality is a prerequisite, and pupils and staff are willing to challenge any hint of gender stereotyping. The recent row about retailers' gender-labelling of toys is a good example of contemporary society's intolerance of such attitudes.

Yet boys and girls tend to have different learning styles. Girls seem to be more organised and self-motivated than boys, but need more encouragement to speculate and ask awkward questions. Boys often need more structure and focus on writing, to complement their ideas and encourage greater reflection. In RE, both speculation and reflection are essential skills; so the teacher has to manage the mixed class carefully to ensure that both boys and girls are appropriately challenged.

RESEARCH suggests that single-sex environments may allow children to develop greater self-esteem, as they are less likely to feel pressure to conform to gender stereotyping (Institute of Education, 2010). In contrast, other studies say that there is no significant gender difference in pupils' success, but rather "a good school is a good school" (Smithers and Robinson, 2008).

Teachers often note that during the key years of adolescence (ages 11-16), the maturity differential between boys and girls can be significant. It is common to encounter the 12-year-old boy "going on" ten, and the 12-year-old girl "going on" 16 in the same class.

The increasing "academisation" of school provision has meant that state-funded schools, including church schools, have more freedom to experiment with different styles of learning and teaching - a freedom long valued by their independent counterparts.

In response, some fully co-educational schools have attempted to address this issue by teaching pupils in single-sex classes for particular subjects, or even whole Key stages. Such differentiation may allow both boys and girls to develop greater confidence, to take more risks in questioning and challenging the teacher's ideas, to engage more comfortably in group work, and to share leadership roles in their peer groups.

There has been a recent twist to this interesting approach. The media furore about some Muslim-majority and free schools when they separate boys from girls in the same class, raises some important questions - especially when girls are expected to sit at the back of the class.

The heads and governors in Derby or Birmingham might justify this practice by saying that the pupils preferred to sit separately, but distinguishing the underlying motives for such different pedagogies would be a fascinating research project.

The Government and OFSTED are attempting to define what might be "acceptable" educational practice, in contrast to what is disturbingly prejudicial to equality in pupils' progress. Government policy, in the name of greater freedom, may have inadvertently opened a Pandora's box that will not be easily shut.

Dr Priscilla Chadwick has been head of Bishop Ramsey C of E comprehensive school, and was Principal of the independent Berkhamsted Collegiate School, Hertfordshire, from 1996 to 2008. She chaired the Board of Education's review of church schools, which resulted in the publication of the 2012 report The Church School of the Future.

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