Boys and girls should be taught separately for large parts of the school day, a schools minister has said.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry called on mixed schools to split the sexes for key subjects such as science to prevent boys ‘hogging the limelight’.
She suggested girls would be more likely to study science at A-level and beyond if taught in ‘girl-friendly’ single-sex classes.
Mrs McCarthy-Fry, who became an (British) education minister following last month’s reshuffle, also suggested more girls could be taught in single-sex schools.
She added: ‘Many girls say they want to go into care professions. But you could present science in a way girls relate to.
‘For instance, you could argue if you really care about health you could design an incubator.’
Her intervention follows a prediction by a leading girls’ school head that within 25 to 50 years, single-sex schooling will once again become the norm.
Cheltenham Ladies College head Vicky Tuck said boys and girls learn better apart because of ‘neurological differences’.
Only a handful of mixed secondary schools have introduced single-sex classes. One, Shenfield, in Essex, claims the arrangement has contributed to pupils’ academic success.
In an interview, Mrs McCarthy-Fry said: ‘Girls do much better in science in single-sex classes. They sometimes feel intimidated in mixed-sex classes, with the boys hogging the limelight and putting their hands up to answer all the questions.’
The MP for Portsmouth North said science and engineering could be presented to girls in a more ‘girl-friendly’ manner.
She said: ‘If you talk to girls about what they want to do, many say they want to go into caring professions – like nursing.
‘But you could present science and engineering in a way girls could relate better to in careers advice.
‘For instance you could argue that if you really care about the environment you can save lives and if you’re interested in health you could design an incubator which could save a child’s life.’
She believed the drive to improve the take-up of science in particular could succeed if single-sex lessons were introduced in co-educational schools – and more girls were taught in single-sex schools.
‘I don’t see why that couldn’t happen,’ she said.
But critics seized on the initiative as an example of Labour borrowing ideas it once reviled.
Hundreds of single sex schools became co-educational during the Sixties and Seventies as grammars were turned into comprehensives.
Over the past four decades, the number of single-sex secondary schools has fallen from around 2,500 to around 400.
But many private schools remain single-sex at least until the sixth-form in response to parental demand.
Speaking at the Girls’ Schools Association’s annual conference last week, Vicky Tuck, GSA president and principal of Cheltenham Ladies College said: ‘I have a hunch that in 50 years time, or maybe only 25, people will be doubled up with laughter when they watch documentaries about the history of education and discover that people once thought it was a good idea to educate adolescent boys and girls together.’
She added that girls’ brains were ‘wired differently’ and that it was ‘crucial to cater for their separate needs’.
Cambridge University research among secondary school pupils has suggested results improve for both boys and girls when they are taught apart in languages and maths.
However, there are no definitive conclusions. Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, found after a review of research that it made little difference to a pupil’s results whether their parents had chosen a single-sex or mixed school.
(The Daily Mail, UK; Article Number 1089375)