By Khaled Diab
Segregating school students by gender, or grouping them according to age simply doesn't make sense.
The fears of generations of parents appear to be unfounded. A new study suggests that it is girls who have a bad influence on boys rather than vice versa – at least when it comes to language. The research found that boys perform worse in English when there are a lot of girls in the class. This female factor can knock as much as 10% off a boy's grades in the subject.
That boys get all tongue-tied around girls may seem self-evident. They blab and blag with the lads but, once in the company of the opposite sex, their speech rapidly devolves. In fact, for some, the presence of a girl they fancy triggers the kind of recessionary pressure that causes their vocabulary to shrink faster than the economy.
The researcher behind the study, Steven Proud of Bristol University, attributed the discrepancy in performance to the realisation among boys that the girls are better than them at English. This probably acts as a demotivator, especially when coupled with the need to appear cool and nonchalant in class. It could also be that teachers gear their teaching approach to girls when there are more girls than boys in the class, Proud contends.
“The results imply that boys would benefit at all ages from being taught English with as small a proportion of girls as possible,” Proud observes, arguing that this presents a strong case for single-sex English classes. Personally, I went to a mixed primary school and a single-sex secondary school, and I don't recall any perceptible difference in my performance – but then I was good at English and so perhaps articulate girls failed to intimidate me.
Other experts are doubtful of the value of Proud's suggestion. “This is one study, among many, which detects very small differences between boys and girls. But you can't say that it means boys or girls should be separated,” says Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.
Smithers has a point. The gap between boys and girls in different subjects, such as science and languages, is actually smaller than the differences within each gender. In addition, splitting up boys and girls can lead to a growth in awkwardness in social interactions between the two sexes in later life. It can also revive the traditional idea that gender differences are real and enormous, rather than marginal and often socially programmed. For instance, boys are more likely to be rebellious, to have learning disabilities and to express their emotions less because of the way they are forced more than girls to wean themselves off their mother's affections before they are ready.
My own view is that we need to group pupils according to ability and not segregate them according to gender – or even age.
There is no compelling reason for age segregation in our education systems, since children tend to mature mentally and physically and different rates. But schools are still widely regarded as some kind of education or knowledge factories where you input generic child at one end and output an educated person at the other, and we desperately need to move away from this production-line model and towards more customised learning.
By basing education primarily upon ability rather than age, pupils will be able to study at the level and speed that suits them. To customise the learning experience further to their abilities and needs, schoolkids should be streamed for ability in each individual subject, not according to their overall “intelligence”. So a pupil who is strong at literature but weak at French will study the former at a higher level.
The possible downside of such a system is that you will have pupils of very different ages in the same class, and a youngster who is academically accomplished isn't necessarily mature enough emotionally and socially to study with older peers. In addition, there is the chance that younger kids will get picked on and older pupils will feel embarrassed.
But the current age segregation in schools has its drawbacks, too, with seniors often lording it over juniors. With time, the greater contact between pupils of different ages will corrode the bizarre age discrimination in schools, and the tribal cliqueness where kids can act like they live in different centuries not study in different years.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 25 April 2009. Read the related discussion.