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
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
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
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
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.