The Cotswold Experiment

Steve Biddulph relates a very encouraging 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 countries. 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 school is not working for boys. 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 experi`ment 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' interests in the boys' classes, and girls interests in the girls' classes. In addition, class 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, the number of boys in the high scoring range had increased by almost 400 per cent, according to figures published in the Times on Sunday.

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 English" 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 to 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, feels that boys must never be given special 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, they 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 targets for ideological "gender wars".

The Cotswold experiment does three important things. First, it acknowledges that boys generally have a slower development of language skills.

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 self-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 budget.)

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 exasperate 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.

This article was first published in Manhood Online.

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