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Single Sex Lessons

John Simkin

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David Miliband, School Standards Minister, told a conference of private girls’ school headteachers, that girls and boys in mixed schools should be taught separately in those subjects in which they traditionally struggle to do well. For example, maths for girls, and languages for boys.

The head teacher of Notley High School disagrees. He claims that his strategy of girl-boy seating arrangement, has led to improved student performance.

What do you think? What has worked best for you?

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It probably works in Modern Foreign Languages. In mixed sex schools, boy tend to regard languages as a "girls' subject" - and there are dozens of published reports and articles that confirm this and that boys perform poorly in languages in mixed sex schools. French in particular is regarded as "cissy" by boys, but German, Spanish and Italian are regarded in a more positive light. However, French is the dominant language in most secondary schools - which is due partly to its traditional position as the No. 1 foreing language, partly to the fact that is is better resourced in terms of books and other materials, and partly to the fact that teachers of languages other than French are had to find.

I attended a single sex grammar school in the 1950s/60s. The arts subjects were regarded by some as "effeminate", but languages were always a strong subject and most boys obtained at least one O-level in a foreign language (which was compulsory for university entrance at the time).

With two thirds of state secondary schools in England now abandoning the teaching of languages to children aged 14+, we are in a crisis situation. We are approaching a situation where modern foreign languages will be offered only to the majority of children in independent prep and independent secondary schools - i.e. back to the elitist situation of the 19th century, where only the middle/upper classes learned a foreign language at school. If single sex teaching can help rectify this situation - maybe French for girls and another language for boys - then I am in favour of it.

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When I was working in Iran after the islamic Revolution, all the international schools were obliged to employ an official from the Revolutionary Committee charged with ensuring that islamic correctness was observed at all times.

One day, the SMT was summoned to his office and informed that we had failed to follow the Revolutionary Committee's edict regarding the separation of the sexes.

Yes we have, we replied. Boys and girls sit in separate classes, eat lunch at different times, use different staircases and have different playtimes.

Not the three-year-olds! he announced triumphantly.

But they're too young, we protested... They don't understand about any of that.

We have conclusive proof, he said, that co-education in European and American schools is a direct cause of homosexuality.

We segregated the three-year-olds.

I know this wasn't relevant, but I couldn't resist...

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I teach in a secondary school (an industrial technical institute) where girls represent about 5% of the students. This means that most classes are single sex and there may be one or two girls in the others. The presence of girls has a great influence on the general performance of the students: male students tend to be more self-disciplined and behave much better than when there are no girls in the class. Boys are also induced to study more and have better results: in fact girls are normally more diligent and boys don't want to cut a poor figure, especially if their female schoolmate is pretty! Anyway, I see from experience that students don't tend to classify subjects as more or less "effeminate", but rather as more or less hard, and maths is certainly the hardest one for most students, male or female ones, in all Italian school types.

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