Dr Norris is Head of Derby Grammar School, an independent day school based in Derby which educates boys from Reception through to Sixth Form, and which welcomes girls in to the Sixth Form too. Here she talks about the importance of single sex education.

Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus proclaims the title of John Gray’s best-selling book. The popularity of the 1992 publication could well be attributed to the largely universal Derby Grammar School - Dr Ruth Norrisacceptance that there are fundamental differences between boys and girls.

What these differences are, exactly, are moot, but what is certain is that many hold their existence to be true. This is certainly what I hear affirmed by the many parents that flow through my school on open days and arrive in my office to explore further the prospects of their sons joining Derby Grammar School.

Why choose a single-sex education?

What could the benefits possibly be? Isn’t the world naturally ‘co-ed’ and so shouldn’t we be preparing our children to live in such a world? These are the challenging questions many parents want to explore with me, but I am glad to do so.

I write here as an exponent of single-sex education. I am the graduate of an all-girls’ school, married to a graduate of an all-boys’ school and have recently been fortunate enough to be able to take up post as Head of a successful, thriving all-boys’ school in Derby.

I have chosen to do so for ideological reasons. It certainly can’t be argued that single-sex education isn’t on the decline in this country: it is. But, why? The explanation lies in the necessity for many schools to adapt to a harsh economic climate. It makes sense of course to double your potential market by admitting both boys and girls. However, commercial necessity often sits at odds with educational values. I would argue that single-sex schools that have been able to cling to their belief in single-sex education are the most principled organisations there are in the educational landscape.

Embracing individuality

Many critics of single-sex education lead with the view that these schools feed harmful stereotypes, for example, that girls’ can’t do science or that they encourage the somewhat dangerous idiom of ‘boys will be boys’. However, I have found the opposite to be true.

Nowhere else can you find boys and girls so liberated in their desire to express their true sense of identity as you can in a single-sex school. These pupils are unfettered by the norms of pressure to conform to stereotypes.

At my school I have boys who embrace sewing club, sing soprano and act the dame at every opportunity. Most importantly, they do so without any reference to how these activities might be regarded as unusual, because they are blissfully unaware. Rather than ‘let boys be boys’ I would argue, ‘let children be children’: allow them to find themselves before they have to confront the increasingly complex adult world that lies ahead.

What about academic achievement in a single-sex environment?

One of the most enjoyable boasts that I am able to make about Derby Grammar School is that we truly understand boys!

We are able to build our curriculum around their strengths, and weaknesses, adapt our approaches to engage their curiosity and sustain their focus. Our co-curricular offerings are tailored to their interests.

The results speak for themselves. Happy children achieve. Single-sex schools still dominate exam grade league tables, taking roughly 75% of the top 100 places. The proof, therefore, is in the pudding!