Teaching boys and girls separately has traditionally been the preserve of the independent sector, while in state schools it is largely confined to a small number of single-sex schools.
However, a number of co-educational state schools are opting for single-sex teaching as a way of trying to raise achievement among both genders.
David Young Community Academy in Leeds introduced single-sex teaching four years ago. English, maths and science are taught in all-girls’ or all-boys’ classes at key stage 3. The school also aspires to have single-sex groups for these core subjects at key stage 4.
“We sometimes go back to mixed at key stage 4 for logistical reasons,” explained principal Ros McMullen. “But we’re very keen on keeping the core single-sex throughout where we can, and certainly at key stage 3.”
She says the original decision to move to single-sex teaching was taken in response to perceived underachievement by one particular group. While the school’s figures showed it was adding value across the board, the group performing least well was girls at the higher end of the ability range.
“Everybody was making progress, but that was a very clear trend,” Ms McMullen added.
Discussions with teachers and with the pupils themselves identified one possible reason for this: the girls were less interested in studying than in performing for the boys, in a culture where aspirations were limited and intelligence and academic success were not always highly prized. “We needed to break that culture and allow girls to be intelligent and develop a persona where it was okay to be intelligent,” Ms McMullen continued.
It soon became clear that single-sex teaching would be restricted to core subjects. Ms McMullen says the academy’s creative and technology departments firmly believed they benefited from having mixed groups, and were anxious not to send the message that their subjects were gender-specific. The school also has a strong performing arts tradition and single-sex groups would inevitably affect its ability to stage productions.
Pupils took the introduction of gendered classes in their stride. In fact, Ms McMullen says, some girls came up to teachers to thank them for separating them from the boys. And now it has been in operation for four years teachers have had the opportunity to see some longer-term effects.
The key difference is that aspirations have been transformed. Although Ms McMullen says this is the result of a number of factors, she is convinced single-sex teaching has played a role. This year pupils have been interviewed for Oxbridge and have won places at medical school, achievements that the principal says were unheard of in the local area until recently.
Staff quickly developed expertise in teaching single-sex groups, and in adapting the curriculum to suit all-boys’ or all-girls’ classes. “We might not start a boys’ group off on Pride and Prejudice, and our boys love rugby league so when you use examples in maths you could use rugby ones,” Ms McMullen explained.
Behaviour has improved, too. Again, Ms McMullen says that although it is hard to unpick one single cause, single-sex teaching has affected the way both girls and boys act in the classroom.
“The fact that they’re no longer going to peacock for each other as soon as they walk through the door is clearly part of the story,” she said. “It is easier for boys to be children and it is much easier for girls to be clever.
“Although we prefer to keep them single-sex, we have discovered that once they have had single-sex for a few years it is okay to mix them higher up because they have got the culture of learning.”
One downside though is that some boys’ groups have become more challenging to teach, particularly in years 8 and 9. “If that is something you’re prepared for, you can become quite specialised in it,” Ms McMullen said. Value-added scores for some boys have also dropped. This may be because they previously took all the attention in mixed-sex groups, although the fall is not dramatic, she added.
Achievement overall has been given a fillip. After a dramatic increase in its first few years – the academy opened its doors in 2006 – GCSE results had plateaued at around 50 per cent five A* to Cs including English and maths. This year the school is expecting that figure to go above 60 per cent.
The central issue for schools thinking of following suit is whether it is appropriate for their own circumstances. At David Young, Ms McMullen says it was very much born out of necessity, driven by the prevailing culture.
“I would not advise this unless you need to do it,” she emphasised. “It all depends on the aspiration and the culture of the children.
“It is not something I would necessarily see everybody doing, and it was because of our context that I thought it would work here.”
Schools also need to consider whether they have the resources to do it in terms of staff and what subjects it should cover. Staff taking single-sex groups also need to have access to good professional development, to consider whether they need to change the curriculum and how it is delivered.
When it was introduced at David Young, one of the main objections was that the school would not be able to have proper top sets for both boys and girls. Ms McMullen concedes that at the time that was probably true, although numbers have since grown.
Another concern was that boys’ groups could become unteachable but Ms McMullen had little time for this. “I said girls don’t exist to civilise boys,” she recalled. “I suspect that is why a lot of schools don’t do this, but in fact the boys are performing for the girls.”
Now staff see that it works, she says there is little appetite to go back to mixed-sex groups for core subjects.
Single-sex teaching also has a pedigree at other co-educational schools. Moulsham High in Chelmsford, Essex, has practised single-sex teaching since it opened more than 40 years ago, and most year 7, 8 and 9 classes are taught in separate boys’ and girls’ classes, while in years 10 and 11 option subjects and some maths, English and science lessons are mixed. Meanwhile, at Wren Academy, in north London, core subjects are taught in single-sex classes.
Of more recent vintage is the arrival of single-sex groups in maths at the Haywood Academy, near Stoke-on-Trent.
Assistant head Mel Roberts introduced them last October, primarily as a way of stopping girls from being overshadowed.
“I felt that the girls were very unconfident in answering questions in front of the boys,” she said.
“The boys were keen to offer their answers but the girls didn’t want to feel stupid.”
When she put the idea to the pupils, she says both genders were enthusiastic. The result was that four year 11 classes were split into single-sex groups. And while girls have become more willing to take part in group activities, they are not the only ones who have benefited.
“The boys’ sets have knuckled down and have become a lot more focused,” Ms Roberts said. “The boys tended to dominate group activities but weren’t that keen on independent work. Now they will also get on with working on their own.
“We have had to change our teaching styles. It is making sure we get the balance right, and the balance was not necessarily right for both sets of students in mixed groups.”
Another feature of Haywood’s approach is that the boys’ groups have a male teacher, while the girls’ groups have female teachers. Ms Roberts says this helps staff to use more relevant examples to illustrate the application of maths.
Although it is early days, she says feedback from pupils has been positive. Both genders say it has made them more able to focus on the subject and get more out of the lesson. The school’s own testing shows both groups have improved by around a grade since the start of single-sex teaching, half a grade more than expected.
Single-sex teaching was not introduced across the board. Ms Roberts says it was felt that mid-ability students, on the C/D borderline, would benefit most, and now many are aspiring to Bs instead of Cs.
Girls and boys were already working well together in the top sets, she says, with girls getting involved in group work and boys working independently. The lower sets tended to be predominantly boys anyway.
Other departments have been following the progress of the initiative, but Ms Roberts suggests that the problem it was designed to address may be more acute in maths.
“I’m not saying other subjects wouldn’t take it on board, but in maths there is a case because girls, particularly at that level, aren’t confident in what they’re doing,” she added. “I could see it working in other subjects, but it has got to be right for the students.”
She is also looking at introducing single-sex teaching in other years, but again says it is important to look at each group separately.
“It is a differentiated approach and this is one way of differentiating,” she explained. “You are not just setting through ability, but looking further to make sure that everything is right.”
Nick Morrison is a freelance journalist specialising in education.