The best of both worlds – the ‘diamond model’
Ian Davies, Headmaster, Brentwood School, Essex
There is a conventional wisdom that single-sex schools are better academically and co-educational schools are better socially. However, I don’t see this as an ‘either-or’ debate. Actually, at Brentwood School, we provide both.
Along with nine other schools in the country, we follow what is known as the ‘Diamond Model’ whereby girls and boys are taught together up to age 11, separately from 11 to 16, and together again in the Sixth Form. In this way boys and girls are taught in separate classes during the crucial and formative teenage years but have many social opportunities to mix together outside the classroom on a single campus.
Essentially the benefits of the Diamond Model result from the ability to tailor academic teaching and pastoral care more acutely and sensitively to meet the gender-specific needs of young people. A single-sex classroom structure from Year 7 helps pupils develop with peers going through similar changes – emotional, physical, hormonal and social. It gives them space to focus on their studies without, what can often be, immense peer pressure to perform in mixed classes. By the time they reach the Sixth Form, students have sufficiently matured and established themselves academically. They can cope with a mixed gender classroom environment and become better prepared for their life at university or in the world of work.
From both a teacher’s and a pupil’s perspective, there are distinct advantages to teaching adolescent boys and girls separately. It is generally acknowledged that girls and boys have different learning styles and different interests, particularly in adolescence. In Diamond schools teachers are able to adopt a more sophisticated and focussed approach, tailoring their teaching accordingly. At the risk of generalising again, I would argue that girls often find spatial awareness quite difficult and so teachers can orientate their lessons with girls to improve this. Similarly, communication skills are not naturally so obvious in boys and teachers can actively promote these skills in boys’ classrooms.
There are more subtle, but just as significant, advantages too. At Brentwood, the same curriculum is taught to both teenage boys and girls, and because the classes are single-sex, their experience of subjects is gender neutral. In this way we avoid the risk of certain subjects becoming gender-labelled. There are no ‘boys-only’ or ‘girls-only’ subjects. In fact the issue of gender preference for subjects just does not come up. Many of our girls thrive in the traditional male-dominated subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology and maths, while many of our boys enjoy cookery, the arts, modern foreign languages and music. Indeed, when it comes to subject options at GCSE level, we find no obvious gender trends to subject selection and the university destinations of our Sixth Formers reveals a similar collection of budding scientists or artists among the girls and boys.
But it’s not all about the academic side of school life – the social side of school is equally important. A major part of what any good school should do is to help their pupils form respectful relationships with those of the opposite sex. For obvious reasons this is more difficult to support in single-sex schools. In Diamond schools, however, although teenage boys and girls are taught separately, because they share the same campus, they have many opportunities to develop in this way. By rubbing shoulders with each other at break and lunchtimes and participating together in a wide range of extra-curricular activities, they learn to have mutual respect for each other and, first and foremost, to treat each other as human beings.
At Brentwood School the extra-curricular programme includes music, drama, trips and excursions, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the Combined Cadet Force; the latter being just as popular with girls as with boys across all divisions – army, navy and air force. Leadership roles within the Combined Cadet Force and generally within school are awarded on merit and achieved equally by girls and boys. These positions, including praepostors (prefects), heads of houses and head of school, provide important role models to younger pupils of successful young men and women across many aspects of school life. As with all schools, teachers are also important role models for pupils and in Diamond schools; as with co-educational schools, there is usually a high preponderance of high profile men and women among the staff.
The benefits of Diamond schools are not confined to just teachers and pupils, however. Parents often comment on the advantages of having a single ‘drop off’ point for their sons and daughters, that the school run is less frazzled since brothers and sisters can share the same school bus, or in the case of boarding that their sons and daughters are living close to each other. In addition to this, there is a certain familiarity and understanding that parents develop over time about a school; an understanding about the reporting system, how the parents’ evenings work or who to contact for certain matters. This knowledge helps parents, particularly those working away or with long hours, to get the best out of their partnership with teachers, the senior management team and the head teacher. Indeed, this experience becomes a vital ‘currency’ in their relationship with the school to ensure the best education for their child. If that same currency can be put to good use for all their children, regardless of whether they are boys or girls, then so much the better!
After reading Theology at St John’s College, Oxford, and a PGCE in Cambridge, Ian Davies taught for ten years in the maintained sector before becoming Head of the Lower School at Latymer Upper, and the Headmaster of St Dunstan’s College in London in 1998. He has been Headmaster of Brentwood School since 2004. He served for ten years as Independent Schools’ Advisor to the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, is a Governor of St Aubyn’s Preparatory School in Woodford Green, and is Chairman of his local theatre. In his spare time he enjoys the occasional game of cricket and golf.