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Putting gender into the mix

06 June 2014

Do some single-sex classes help pupils to do better in their studies? Margaret Holness considers the learning policy at one C of E academy in north London


In the mix: Wren Academy year seven boys and girls learning together in Food Technology

In the mix: Wren Academy year seven boys and girls learning together in Food Technology

"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 distracted."

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 classes.

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 national average.

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."

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