Teaching girls in single-sex schools, long an obsession of many parents worried about their daughters being distracted by boys, makes no difference to their educational attainment according to one of the most comprehensive studies of the way children learn.
The findings by Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Buckingham University and one of Britain’s most respected schools experts, will come as a shock to parents convinced their daughters would benefit from an all-girl environment. Half a century of research ‘has not shown any dramatic or consistent advantages for single-sex education’ for boys or girls, he will conclude.
‘The reason people think single-sex schools are better is because they do well in league tables,’ said Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research. ‘But they are generally independent, grammar or former grammar schools and they do well because of the ability and social background of the pupils.’ Their success should not be used to argue it is better to separate girls and boys in other settings, he added.
Smithers said headteachers made ‘exaggerated claims’ about the benefits of girl-only schools because they were under threat. The number of single-sex state schools has fallen from nearly 2,500 to just over 400 in 40 years.
However, a growing movement in the US argues that boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently, so they benefit from separate teaching styles. In Britain more and more mixed schools are using single-sex classes because of ongoing concerns over boys’ results, which have consistently lagged behind those of girls.
But Smithers, who will present his findings at a co-education conference at Wellington College in Berkshire, said that whether a school was single-sex or not had little impact on how well it did. His exhaustive review of data from across the world showed no evidence that single-sex schools were consistently superior. In Hong Kong, where 10 per cent of schools are single-sex, girls appeared to do better. But in Belgium, where co-educational schools are in the minority, boys and girls who study together get the best results. He highlighted the fact that 40 per cent of people who had a single-sex education wanted their children to go to a co-educational school.
The work was carried out on behalf of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, an organisation that represents the headteachers of some 250 leading independent schools in Britain. It comes after research published last month in Scotland showed that even in a co-educational school, separating pupils into single-sex classes failed to improve boys’ performance. Rather than raising success rates, the move led to greater indiscipline, it found.
The studies will not be welcomed by campaigners for single-sex education. Brenda Despontin, president of the Girls School Association said there was no question that girls benefited from the absence of boys. ‘There are irrefutable differences between girls and boys. Girls have a greater ability to focus for longer, boys want to change [activities] more times. The requirements of a lesson and how it is structured are different. Parents want their girls feeling confident and comfortable about who they are. Sometimes having teenage boys around can be inhibiting for girls and vice-versa.’
She pointed to a study by the Department for Education and Skills showing the proportion of A grades achieved at A-level in all-girl independent schools was, on average, 10 per cent higher than that of girls in co-educational independent schools, in a number of subjects.
Whatever the arguments, many parents will continue to demand single-sex education for their children and Smithers says it should be provided. While his study shows no overall advantages to the schools, it also shows no disadvantages. As such, headteachers should feel ‘liberated’ because they can choose whatever system they feel suits them, he said, arguing that some parents wanted the schools for cultural or religious reasons.
Such reasons have led parents in Nottingham to fight against the proposed closure of an all-girls’ comprehensive. Their campaign has led the council to launch a huge consultation into the issue of single-sex schools. But Councillor Graham Chapman – who is involved in the work – said the arguments for single-sex schooling were often lopsided: ‘Parents tend to want girls to go to single- sex schools but boys to go to mixed ones. It is a difficult circle to square.’