Oh, boy!

Oh dear, oh dear. The first male President of the Girls’ Schools Association has walked straight into a minefield by suggesting that boys should be taught separately lest they be out off learning by high-achieving girls. This is a new spin on the oft-quoted line that it is girls who need to be taught separately lest they be put off by loud and attention-seeking boys, but it’s part of the same narrative, and needs to be taken seriously.

Nationally, it is true that girls outperform boys. They get better GCSE results, markedly so in some subjects. They dominate uptake at A Level, again markedly in languages and other subjects. Indeed, some universities now have up to three quarters of their languages intake from girls, and medical schools are privately concerned at how few boys are getting to study to become doctors. At school level, talk to any teacher and they will know of the phenomenon whereby studious girls get all the top grades and prizes, even though they may on paper be no more intelligent than the lads.

However, separation is rarely the answer. I say rarely, because although my own school is co-educational, I do believe that single-sex schools are a good thing to have as part of an education system. I believe in choice, and I believe above all in the right school for the right pupil. For, I would say, a very small number of boys and girls, a single-sex education might be best. The top single-sex schools might just offer a level of sport, or specific help, or suitability for a certain temperament which tops that on offer at an equivalent co-ed school. And for some parents, the best school in the area might be a single-sex school: there just might not be a co-ed school good enough for their needs.

On the other hand, think what a single sex school deprives you of: I have never come across one whose drama is genuinely outstanding (and music can be a challenge too). I can’t see how the pupil leadership experience can possibly be as rich and educational. And above all, the boy in a boys’ school never gets to see girls being good at leadership or sport, and learn to admire and work with that, and the girl in a girls’ school never has to learn how boys function and think. Nor can the arty boy in a boys’ school take part in dance or jewellery making (or not in any I know), with such natural ease as he can in a co-ed school. Nor (and my school has been recognised nationally for this) can the girl so easily move into Physics A Level, or design engines or run a fledgling business.

But the classroom was the point of Mr Jones’s intervention, and here I must take issue with him. He claims that boys are overawed by articulate girls and thus underperform. I don’t know what his own experience has been, but every teacher knows that a classroom will contain quiet stars and vocal stars, quiet strugglers and attention-seeking strugglers, along with infinite variations on those and other themes. There is, certainly, some correlation with gender – some – which anyone who has taught for a few years recognises. By and large, many girls are quiet in class, follow instructions more readily, like clear explanation. By and large, they like to get their work done, often over-worrying if it is not perfect. By and large, many boys like competition and variety, jokes and games, are ready to have a go. By and large, many boys are happy to get a task finished, and worry less about perfection. I’m not sure Mr Jones has got his stereotypes right, by the way: I’m a linguist – a girl-dominated subject – and yet I have always found girls more likely to be careful and reticent, and boys more likely to have a go.

But here’s the thing. We shouldn’t respond to this variety (which is after all the delight and challenge of teaching) by putting all the quiet ones together in one room and all the loud ones together in another. No, the great teachers develop strategies to help all students learn from each other, so that the experience is richer for all and more successful for all. The best teachers vary activities, so that the natural auditory or digital learners start to appreciate and benefit from other activities, and the naturally buoyant ones learn that sometimes you have to just sit still and listen. The best teachers encourage the perfectionists to stop after the allotted time and move on, and the slapdash to persist until they have done their best. The best teachers coax effort out of the quiet and keep a lid on the noisy. The best teachers know that they will ALL learn from this. That is what life is like.

But, worse, if we say ‘all girls are one type of learner and all boys are another’, without even thinking about them as individuals, and condemn the girls to a life learning like a girl and boys to a life learning like a boy, we are doing them all a massive disservice. What about the boisterous, kinaesthetic girls? What about the quiet boys? What, above all, about the teachers whose skills are narrowed to one way of doing things?

I’ve bored people about this before, I know, but my first, happy years as a teacher were in a (great) boys’ school. I loved teaching there: the boys loved endless competitions, silly language games, termly catchphrases and ‘in jokes’. I then moved to a co-ed school where I realised I had become a lazy teacher: the girls raised their eyebrows at jokes and hated endless competitions. I had to adapt; I had, in fact, to become a better teacher. And guess what? That helps all pupils, not just the girls and not just the boys.

We hear all the time – rightly – that we should not stereotype and pigeon hole people. My own daughter would be furious at the suggestion that simply because she is a girl she should go in certain directions. My sons would think I had gone mad. And I doubt my parental experience is that unusual. So why suggest that simply because of their gender, boys and girls should be separated for their learning?

Nobody who has any sense should be opposed to single sex schools. Girls-only schools – and boys-only schools – are some of the greatest schools in the world. Who could sensibly claim that Eton is not one of the world’s great institutions, or that St Paul’s Girls School or Withington are not? But they are not great because they are single-sex. Those who run these great schools, and many, many others, should not be pleased to be told parents should send their child to them to get a ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ education. These schools thrive because they are fantastic schools, full stop.

Oh dear, oh dear. And I thought 2015 was going to be quiet.

By Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of the King’s School, Chester, and Co-Chairman of the GSA/HMC Universities Committee