"IT'S EASIER for the awkward subjects," 13-year-old Ella says.
Her classmates Holly and Jayaka nod in agreement. So what's
awkward? "Sex education. But it's good for other subjects, too." In
what way? Dominic, Devin, and Sarp are certain: "You don't get
The six Year-8 students at Wren Academy, Barnet, North London,
are explaining an aspect of the school's carefully calibrated
learning policy: English, maths, and science are taught in
single-sex groups to GCSE; sex education is taught separately to
Year 9. All other subjects are taught in mixed classes.
When the London Diocesan Board for Schools (LDBS) got the
go-ahead in 2007 to sponsor the academy, there was some local
pressure for a single-sex girls' school. Instead, the diocese
plumped for a co-educational school, but the decision to include a
significant element of single-sex teaching was partly influenced by
parental preference, the head teacher, Michael Whitworth, says.
The LDBS's co-sponsor is the independent Berkhamsted School,
where boys and girls are taught jointly in the junior department,
but separately from 11-16, and come together again in the sixth
form. This "diamond" pattern was devised by Priscilla Chadwick,
who, as principal, oversaw the merger of the formerly separate
boys' and girls' schools. She now chairs the governors at Wren.
But Mr Whitworth, formerly the head of a mixed comprehensive,
says that he would not have signed up to separate classes across
the curriculum. He sees the limited use of single-sex classes in
terms of effectiveness.
EFFECTIVENESS is the watchword at Wren, and Ronnie Smiley, an
assistant head - and as genial as his name - explains the rationale
for single-sex classes in core subjects. "Girls and boys learn
differently, and teachers quickly come to understand that you can't
teach the same lesson to both sexes with equal success. For
example, boys are happy to take risks, while girls are cautious
about giving the wrong answer."
Cue Ella's earlier remark. "You see, most of my friends are
girls," she says; "so I don't mind making mistakes in front of
them." And cue the boys' insistence that, besides being free from
distractions, they find group-work easier in single-sex
The students are in mixed classes for the rest of the
curriculum; and here, another feature of Wren's overall
learning-plan comes into play. Students do not sit where they like;
for every lesson, teachers have an artfully constructed seating
plan - sometimes two plans. It may be girl/boy/girl/boy; or it may
relate to ability.
The confidence built up in single-sex lessons, Mr Smiley says,
spills over into other subjects. Moreover, he says, the laddish
culture present in some schools does not exist at Wren. He suggests
that that is partly due to the Christian values explicit throughout
the school - in communal areas, Banksy-like images of staff and
students are accompanied by relevant biblical statements ex-pressed
in contemporary language.
Although they clearly appreciated their single-sex lessons,
there was an obvious camaraderie between the students I talked to.
And the boys were keen to draw attention to the girls' successes as
well as their own. It was Dominic, for example, who told me that he
and Jayaka were both IT subject-leaders.
It was clear that they took their single-sex classes for
granted, and wanted to move on to explain other innovations at
their school - which has been rated outstanding at every OFSTED
inspection since it opened in 2008.
IN LEARNING terms, the single-sex classes seem to be effective.
Wren's first GCSE results were in the top two per cent nationally
for maths, and in the top ten per cent for English. In English,
however, girls were still ahead of the boys - a gender gap that Mr
Whitworth hopes to close.
Girls at Wren may be more likely to opt for further study in
maths and science: Ella and Holly say that they are inspired by the
fact that their teachers in these subjects are women, and Jayaka's
obvious gift for IT is being encouraged. And, tellingly, with
Wren's first sixth-form now in place, 40 per cent of the students
taking science A level are girls - a higher proportion than the
Tom Peryer, who was director of education for London diocese
when Wren Academy was planned, says that it had to be markedly
different from the predecessor C of E school that had closed two
years earlier. "We knew we had to offer a very different vision and
promise," he says.
"Introducing single-sex teaching was one part of the powerful
vision we created, and which has so successfully been put into
practice, making Wren extraordinarily popular with parents, and
high-achieving from day one."