Experiment in single-sex classes

Peter Vogel (pvogel@ibm.net)
Thu, 23 Apr 1998 07:33:03 +1000 (EST)

The following article was written by an
Australian family therapist and author of
"Raising boys" which was last year's best-seller
here in Australia. I thought it would be of
interest in the present context.

The Cotswold experiment

Steve Biddulph relates a very positive story of how a British secondary
school's novel approach to education has helped solve the problem of
learning, behaviour, and boys. He asks why similar models can't be
established in Australia and calls for a non-ideological approach to
education that benefits both girls and boys.

The two great debates which have been racking the education world lately
may just have been solved by a creative experiment in an English secondary
school. The school separated girls and boys for one subject only - English -
and found dramatic improvements in boys' results, and behaviour. And the girls
did better, too!
All over the world, two closely linked questions have been putting education
in the headlines. The first is the perennial debate about single sex schools vs.

co-education. The second is the alarming decline in boys' attainment and
participation at school, which has been noted in almost all industrial
Parents and educators everywhere note that boys both have trouble, and cause
trouble, at school. How to help boys learn and behave better in schools has
become the number one educational challenge worldwide. Parents of girls are
solving the problem by flocking to enrol their daughters in girls' schools. But
where can the boys run to?
While few in education would decry the progress made with girls' attainment
and opportunities in the last 20 years, the fact is it's not working for boys.
TER scores, literacy rates, and retention rates are falling. Teachers point out
that boys are often unmotivated, lack confidence, see learning as unmasculine,
and are depressed and demoralized about their future. Bart Simpson-like, the
boys fill the remedial classes, and the detention lists.

To meet this challenge, The Cotswold School, a co-educational secondary school
in Leicestershire, England, undertook an experiment of dazzling simplicity. The
school assigned boys and girls in fourth year of secondary school to separate
English classes. They then tinkered with the curriculum - the

choice of texts, poetry, and discussion materials was tailored to boys'
in the boys' classes, and girls interests in the girls' classes. In addition,
sizes were reduced to about 21 per class, and some intensive writing and
reading support was instituted for the boys.
According to national statistics for the UK, only 9% of 14-year-old boys
nationwide get grades in the range of A to C for English. English is not a
subject which boys either like or do well in. The result of the Cotswold
experiment was dramatic and convincing. After two years in the new gender-
segregated classes, 34% of boys scored in the A-C range in their final GSCE
exams. The school had increased the number of boys in the high scoring range
by almost 400 per cent.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the girls did significantly better too. The school
recorded scores in the A-C range for 75% of girls, compared with 46% the
previous year.
The experiment was the brainchild of Marian Cox, head of the English
department at the school, and is part of a wider study of student groupings for
the study of English, which will end in 1998. Already, the gender separation
effects have caused considerable excitement around the U.K. Cox told the
London Times newspaper last month that the benefits went far beyond just
English scores: "Behaviour, concentration, and reading levels all improved
significantly. I believe if we can catch them even younger than 14, before they
give up books for TV and computer, and the anti-heroic role models are
entrenched - we would have even better chances of success."
When I interviewed Marian Cox recently, she explained that boys at the
school found they could relax and express themselves more without girls
present, and girls reported the same. She felt that separation "just for
was a good alternative to the extreme of single sex schools, or completely
separate curricula for boys and girls as practiced in some English schools.
Cox noted that, "The most frequent observation from visitors to these
classes was that the atmosphere was more calm and settled". Boys were
responding to more support in reading - given time to read the books in the
classroom, they were learning to enjoy reading, often for the first time. "Some
of these boys had never read a complete book before, apart from an adventure
game or instruction manual. But they found they enjoyed it." Several boys in
the study were now planning to study English at higher levels.

In Australian education there is considerable turmoil over gender. Advocates
of girls' education are divided. Many are pleased with the successes of efforts
raise girls' horizons, and while they see the need for more of this, they are
concerned about boys' needs too.
Those who work in schools tend to hold this view more strongly - the
difficulty of boys is just so evident. Teachers point out that unless boys are
helped, they will continue to be a problem to girls, too - disrupting classes,
monopolizing teacher time, bullying each other and girls in the playground, and
so on.
However a separate, more hard-core group, based in the ideological world of
the universities and training colleges, feel that boys must never be given
help, that girls' disadvantages are so entrenched that they must receive all the

resource cake for the foreseeable future. This group is horrified by even the
idea of boys' special programs, and in NSW at least, have been effective in
preventing them from taking place.
Dr. Victoria Foster, the author of the NSW gender strategy, and NSW Labor
MP Meredith Burgman, have both argued that school MUST favour girls to
make up for the inequalities that girls face in the outside world. In effect,
are saying we should handicap boys in school, to make up for the sexism "out
there". These policies and attitudes do impinge on boys and schools - many
parents, and boys themselves, have told me they feel this acutely.
Parents are beginning to protest, to the point where Warren Johnson,
Executive Officer of the NSW Parents and Friends Association, has proposed a
special conference to bring boys' education experts together to try and counter
the unfairness of the State's gender equity policy as it stands.
The problem with much of this debate is that it is needless. What the
Cotswold experiment shows is that everyone can benefit if we tailor programs
to each "special needs" group in schools. Boys, girls, low income groups,
migrant and ethnic groups, and so on, all present different challenges. We don't

need to create "bad guys" and we don't need to treat children as the soft
for ideological "gender wars".
The Cotswold experiment does three important things. First, it
acknowledges that boys generally have a slower development of language
Second, it takes account of the dynamic by which boys, feeling verbally
outclassed by the girls in expressive subjects, often become hoonish and macho
as a defence mechanism, spoiling the class for themselves and for the girls.
Third, by specifically targeting English, it tackles the key life skills of
expression, self-awareness and communication - the very things men
traditionally lack. These are the skills that make boys into better fathers,
partners, and workmates - which most girls and women long for.
In Australia, with suicide now accounting for one in 34 male deaths, any
program reducing boys' isolation would be a godsend. (In fact, there's a good
case to be put for English classes qualifying for funding from the mental health

Segregated classes and curricula are not risk free. There is always a danger
of reintroducing stereotypes - MacBeth for the boys, Romeo and Juliet for the
girls. Peter Vogel, editor of Certified Male magazine, pointed out recently his
own experiences in a boys' school, where "every boy was supposed to be
macho, like sport, war, and competition. If you didn't, then you didn't feel
good". As usual, this comes down to the skill and maturity of the teacher -
being able to encourage a wide range of ways of being a boy, or a girl.
The Cotswold results are encouraging - when separated, the girls and boys seemed
able to relax and drop the old roles. This gives teachers a chance to draw out
more of the real child, without the role playing that passes for lots of school
behaviour. Once experiencing this richness of being, boys are less likely to
return to being the gruff, cool automatons that so exasperates their parents by
the early teens! Boys in these programs actually became more expressive,
creative, linguistically skilled - in short more human, and more equipped for
life. Girls continued as they have through the last decade, to become more
assertive, analytical, and exuberant. In short, everybody wins.

Peter Vogel

new message to this message