Do pupils in single sex schools get better grades?

We often say, “practice makes perfect”, a mantra that can be as clichéd as it is true. I was reminded of its value recently in very different contexts because it is as valuable for examinations as it is for fostering lifelong learning at Northampton High.

Exam season is now well underway here and there is a unique concentrated quiet in school at this time of year that accompanies busy minds. Year 11 and Year 13 are in the full swing of their GCSEs and A Levels down in the Wake Studio, and Year 7 to 10 are wrapping up their internal assessments – a special note of praise for our Year 10 students for their calm, composed and focused attitude in their first GCSE-style assessment week.

I was struck by a conversation I had in the staff room last week in which half a dozen colleagues from different subjects were talking in positive and glowing terms about the active and enthusiastic approach they had been seeing from our girls in lessons in preparation for these internal assessments. They shared their admiration for the girls’ serious approach to revision, whilst also recognising that these assessments serve as an opportunity for them to diagnose areas that might need more support and give them an understanding of how they work in formal test conditions. At Northampton High, we see a motivated learner not simply being about character traits such as grit and resilience, it can be achieved by understanding the learning process and using the most effective strategies and techniques, which can be taught and practised.

‘They’re taking their revision really seriously’, said one teacher, about Year 7. ‘I’ve been so impressed with their work on practice questions’, said another teacher about Year 10. ‘It’s been great to see them taking responsibility for working out what they need to do’, added a third about Year 8 and 9. I am particularly grateful to Mrs Rimmer, our Examinations Officer, Heads of Year (Mrs Fordham, Miss Fraser and Mrs Down) and the Wellbeing and Medical team for their dedicated support and guidance, helping our students manage anxiety during these internal assessments. It is evident that our students have completed some sensible, well-structured revision and have also managed to maintain a good sense of perspective.

What a difference a year makes! It is so heartening to see that the work Mr Rickman and our Heads of Faculty have been leading all year on the development of our intellectual characteristics – collaboration, curiosity, independence, perseverance and risk-taking – at Northampton High is paying off and that the mindset of our students is changing. I am delighted that they are beginning to believe us when we say that all assessments, from class vocab tests to full internal assessment papers, should be approached as a learning opportunity – and that the evidence suggests they are confident that they are developing the skills and attributes they need to do so. At the same time, by modelling our assessment processes on a developmental philosophy of continuous improvement, we hope to demonstrate our belief in the pupils and allow them to believe in themselves.

I am equally pleased that our ‘Northampton High Approach’ to pupils’ academic and personal development is helping to keep our students focused throughout their school career and enabling them to get the best out of their school experience.

Interestingly, according to analysis by FFT Datalab, girls who attend all-girls schools achieve better exam results than girls with similar backgrounds at mixed schools, as well as surpassing boys at all-boys schools. While girls’ schools have been known to outperform other types of school in England, the analysis found that even after adjusting for background characteristics there was an unexplained boost for pupils at girls’ schools, equivalent to 10 per cent higher GCSE grades last year. These findings attribute to the environment the girls are in and how much attention is given to their success from teachers. We know, and research shows, that boys typically in a classroom demand more of a teacher’s time, so if you remove boys from the question the girls are going to have more teacher’s time, and that is going to be helpful in terms of achievement.

Fundamentally, single-sex education gives girls a voice. We recognise that essential to any classroom is the ability of the teacher to convey information and engage the class in discussion and debate to assess understanding. In a girls-only classroom, interruptions are less likely, allowing girls to focus and have all the ‘airtime’ to voice their contributions. To that end, girls are more likely to achieve better grades during their time at an all girls’ school with cultural and environmental factors being key reasons as to why this is the case.