Single-sex schools `better for teenaged boys and girls’

Boys and girls in single-sex settings average better year 12 results, with TER scores 15 to 22 percentile points higher than the scores of students in coeducational settings, according to Melbourne research.

The gap exists even after allowing for different school sectors and students’ differing abilities.

Boys and girls in single-sex settings were also more likely to be better behaved in the classroom and to find their school enjoyable, their curriculum relevant and teachers responsive, said the study’s author, Ken Rowe, principal research fellow with
the Australian Council for Educational Research.

“The reasons for such differences are complex,” said Dr Rowe. “But research evidence suggests that coeducational settings are limited in their capacity to accommodate the large differences in cognitive, social and developmental growth rates of girls and boys between the ages of 12 and 16.”

He attributes the difference partly to “the two-thirds rule”: “Two-thirds of the teacher’s time in a coeducational environment, regardless of the gender of the teacher, is spent managing either the ego-tripping behavior of the boys or the very aggressive, assertive behaviors of the girls, which means less time is spent on task.”
Dr Rowe said boys and girls were out of synch with each other as teens because of differences in physiology and cognitive development, with girls maturing earlier. “So the girls have to deal with pretty juvenile, male macho kind of behaviors.” There was less showing off in single-sex classrooms, he said.

The news contradicts the prevailing wisdom on schools and gender, which was that girls performed better in single-sex environments away from boys’ rowdiness and boys did best in co-ed settings, where girls’ behavior helped improve the boys’.

But Dr Rowe warned parents not to automatically choose single-sex schooling on the basis of his findings, saying that teacher quality, not sex-segregation, was the most influential factor affecting students’ outcomes. Single-sex settings accounted for 10 to 12 per cent of the residual variance in outcomes while teaching quality accounted for 59 per cent, he said.

He pointed out that Melbourne’s top schools, which are Jewish, are coeducational but their students excel because of the quality of teachers and the schools’ culture of learning. “It also depends on `horses for courses’; some children thrive in single-sex environments and some students do better in a co-ed environment,” he said.

Dr Rowe based his research on several studies including an analysis of the achievements of 270,000 year 12 students in 53 VCE subjects over six years (1994-1999). The findings that single-sex students were more satisfied were based on longitudinal studies of more than 16,000 students from 200 government, Catholic and independent primary and secondary schools.

First published in The Age.

Classroom conflict

Making education an equally rewarding experience for both sexes is a huge challenge

He’s 13 years old and he hates school. He told an interviewer who was studying boys and education: “My English teacher wants me to write about my feelings, my history teacher wants me to give my opinions, and my science teacher wants me to write about my views on the environment! I don’t know what my feelings, opinions and views are, and I can’t write about them.

“Anyway, they’re none of their bloody business! I hate school! I only wish I could write about things I’m interested in, like sport and military aircraft.”

Adolescent angst? Or a pithy summation of the ways in which boys and schools are increasingly going their separate ways, to boys’ eternal detriment?
In the ’70s, the panic was about girls’ performance. Now the average girl outstrips the average boy: she reads earlier and more widely, works harder, behaves better, stays at school longer and, when it comes to the VCE crunch, scores higher marks in most subjects.

Now parents and teachers – and politicians, who have launched a federal parliamentary inquiry into the issue – are worried about boys. The students who are most disruptive in class and least interested in work tend to be boys; while that is not new, the problem is said to have worsened, with boys increasingly “disengaged” from school.

The alarm has been compounded by the gap between girls’ and boys’ retention rates and their achievement at VCE level; girls do better.

Boys find teachers even more tiresome than teachers find boys. A recent survey by Flinders University researchers of 1800 boys in secondary school found even high achievers think schoolwork boring and repetitive. They said teachers were lazy and authoritarian and liked girls better just because they were obedient and easy to manage.

Many boys who said they aimed to stay at school had left by the time researchers returned later in the year. At one school, all the year 11 boys failed to return after a term break. “All but a small number of the boys consistently, emphatically and despairingly talked about their achievement problems primarily in terms of `bad teachers’ who are given too much power,” reported the study.

But concerned teachers are often upset and bewildered by their failure to engage boys, says Richard Fletcher, manager of the men and boys program at the Family Action Centre at Newcastle University. He told the parliamentary inquiry of a New South Wales high school so desperate to get boys involved that it set up a cadet corps. The deputy principal called Mr Fletcher out to the yard the day of the first muster: “There were 16 girls and two boys. He had tears in his eyes …”
In the classroom, boys are also contending with the newfound confidence – if not arrogance – of girls. Ken Rowe, principal research fellow with the Australian Council for Educational Research, quotes a female year 9 coordinator in a large coed secondary college as saying: “The girls give (the boys) a very hard time. The `sisterhood’ are bitchy, socially and sexually aggressive, and nastily intolerant of the boys’ less competent verbal and academic skills.”
So why are boys in strife, and what can be done to help them?

Boys develop differently to girls. Even as babies, girls are ahead in their communication skills, gesturing to others more often than boys and in more complicated ways, according to Berenice Nyland, lecturer in early childhood at RMIT. She says boys also have higher muscle mass and energy levels, making many less suited to sitting still and paying attention for long periods.

Boys are more likely than girls to start school with problems in “auditory processing”, according to Mr Rowe, of the educational council. He heard one teacher tell a six-year-old boy: “I want you to go to the grey cupboard in the corner, pick up the green pencil from the top shelf and the purple book from the third shelf, close the door, go to our desk, get out your workbook and come and sit down with me.” The child stood mute and bewildered.

Mr Rowe says many teachers do not realise they have to offer information in small grabs and speak slower for young boys than for young girls.

He says girls on average remain two years ahead of boys in language skills until both are university age. By grade two, girls’ vocabulary is 40per cent larger than boys’, and by 14 they have read six times more material than boys. Boys are four times as likely to have reading problems and make up 90 per cent of the children diagnosed with attention deficit problems.

Boys do better on tests involving straightforward answers to factual problems, and in the past found it easier to achieve in areas such as maths and physics. But Mr Rowe says that today even those subjects need a high level of verbal reasoning and written communication skills. An exam question will present a problem that must be analysed first to work out which mathematical equation should apply.

“The level of verbal reasoning required in specialist maths and physics is four times greater than what’s required in English literature and Australian history.” Some boys’ advocates call the new emphasis on language a “feminisation” of the curriculum because it favors areas girls are good at. Mr Rowe sees it as preparing boys for a changing world: “We are living in an information society, and unless boys can access and synthesise that information, they’ve got problems.”

Some of boys’ educational problems are due to immature ideas about what it means to be a real man. A Federal Government report released last year said some boys (and some girls) belong to peer cultures of banter, bravado and bullying that undermine school achievement.

Mr Rowe sees a link between boyish bravado and early literacy problems. He says boys often say they feel they cannot do well at school or compete with the girls.

“To compensate for this, many such boys place a premium on success in sport and some of the more macho (and often delinquent) activities that yield positive feedback from their peers, rather than recognition from school staff – most of whom (the boys note) are women.” Women now make up more than half of all secondary teachers and more than three-quarters of primary teachers, the parliamentary inquiry was told.

Proposed solutions to the problems include working like fury to teach little boys to read, and involving more men in boys’ schooling, particularly fathers.

Professor Peter Hill, of the Centre for Applied Educational Research at the University of Melbourne, told the parliamentary inquiry it would cost an extra $200 million to rescue literacy’s stragglers in the early years. But the one-on-one help this would buy is very successful: “We have seen kids taken from the bottom of the class that go to the middle of the class in 12 weeks.”

Mr Fletcher runs an “Engaging Fathers Project” in Newcastle schools. He says it is important that fathers become directly involved in activities with boys.

Another project has male volunteers spend an hour a week with struggling boys, many of whom have no father at home. Mr Fletcher says: “They do not have to teach him anything; all they have to do is be interested and be able to talk to him and listen. The results are exceptional. Behavior improves, academic performance improves and the parents often report that their behavior at home improves. There is less anger, less acting out.”
But the 1800 boys in South Australia who complained bitterly about the quality of teachers are also making a crucial point. Rowe says the quality of teaching is far more significant to the success of boys and girls than any other factor.

He says gender accounts for up to 12 per cent of the variance in performance, while teacher quality accounts for 60 per cent. This makes the debate about girls versus boys “the pimple on the pumpkin”. The real question, he says, is “how do we improve the standard of teaching?”
Judy Parker, an educational consultant and author of a new book, Effective Teaching and Learning Strategies, says teenage boys in particular need schoolwork that is imaginative and personally relevant and involves more hands-on activity: “It’s got to have a visual-spatial element. If they can shape it or make it or construct it or design it, they’ll be much happier.”

First published in The Age.

A faithful translation: The King James Bible


A TRANSLATION, a French writer once said, is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is not beautiful.But that’s the French for you. The English would say that if it was both faithful and beautiful, it must be the King James translation of the Bible. It is so revered for its literary grace and the way it has shaped English that even non-believers study it as they would Shakespeare.

But while its text may be sublime, it was conceived in ignoble, self-aggrandising politics, commissioned in order to cement the privilege and power of the British Establishment.

The story of the King James Bible, first published in 1611, shows how greatness can spring rather undeservedly from shabby beginnings. It shows how people with power fight the spread of ideas that threaten them. And it offers reassurance to those who fear we are speaking a “dumbed-down”, degraded form of English today; their concerns echo centuries-old anxieties among intellectuals about the way language evolves.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, is a new book on the subject by a professor of historical theology at Oxford University, Alister McGrath.

McGrath writes with a scholar’s eye for detail and disdain for frivolity. He devotes six pages to the technology of the first printing and a mere aside to the titillating fact that good King James, whose name for centuries has been linked through this Bible with conservative religious righteousness, had strong homosexual tendencies and was given to lecherous fondling of his favorites in public.

James was a man with an eye to the main chance in other ways too. According to McGrath, he snatched at the idea for a new translation of the Bible in an attempt to placate Puritans who had expected him to reform the Church of England along their severely Protestant lines. James, who feared Protestantism because he saw it as linked to republicanism, had no such intention.

But he was happy to authorise a new translation that would eradicate the alarmingly democratic language of the then-popular Tyndale New Testament of 1526, which often translated “king” as “tyrant”, “church” as “congregation” and “priest” as
“elder”, thus undermining both monarchy and episcopacy.

The Geneva Bible, from which Shakespeare drew the quotations for his plays, was even more open in its challenge of the divine right of kings. It suggested royal orders should be disobeyed if they conflicted with the will of God and warned that tyrants’ days were numbered.

English authorities had tried unsuccessfully to ban English-language biblical texts and the next best thing was to produce their own authorised version. For James, writes McGrath, political and religious unity were to be achieved through him as monarch and through a single version of the Bible issued with his authority as king and as head of the church.

Luckily for literature, the 50-odd Oxford and Cambridge scholars given the task tried to translate faithfully from the Hebrew and Arabic of the original Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. They aimed for accuracy, not beauty, but the unexpected byproducts were poetry and pungency.

For centuries, the King James Bible was the main book illiterate people heard read, and those who were literate often learned to read from it. It was a unifying force in that it set modern, standard English.

Before then most people spoke strong dialects, and spelling was idiosyncratic (according to Melbourne linguist Dr Mark Newbrook, the Elizabethan seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh signed his name at least five different ways). The King James also enriched the vocabulary and imaginative power of English. The many Hebrew idioms from the Old Testament now taken for granted as English include “to pour out one’s heart”, “the land of the living”, “sour grapes”, “like a lamb to the slaughter” and “to go from strength to strength”.

New Testament translators drew from the earlier work of William Tyndale, to whom English owes much. He coined pithy expressions such as “the powers that be”, “my brother’s keeper”, “the salt of the earth” and “a law unto themselves”. He also invented new words to accommodate Biblical ideas, including “Passover”, “scapegoat” and “atonement”, although his aim was to produce a text that even a ploughboy could understand.

Let’s hope he received his reward in the next life. In this one, he was burnt at the stake – mercifully strangled first, it is thought – by church authorities in Belgium. Clergy were enraged by translations into the vernacular from Latin, the official language of the church spoken only by elites, because it threatened their control of religious belief.

Temporal rulers were anxious too. The term “liberation theology” may not have been coined, but it was feared that if ordinary people could read and interpret the word of God themselves, they might revolt.

After the publication of the King James Bible, an archbishop publicly burned a Geneva Bible and England banned all English-language Bibles printed in the more radical atmosphere of Europe. The excuse was that it protected the livelihood of English printers; in reality, it prevented the importation of ideas that challenged authority.

The divine right of kings is no longer an issue, at least in the West. But the translation of the Bible into English was opposed for another reason that still resonates today.

In 16th century England, the elites spoke English only to their inferiors, confining themselves otherwise to the more “refined” French or Latin. They feared religious texts would be cheapened if translated for commoners. “To translate into the language of the people was to vulgarise and trivialise the message,” says Dr Peter Horsfield, a lecturer in communications at RMIT.

Today, paradoxically, the English translation they feared is held up as a beacon by those who think 20th century English has become impoverished. “It seems to me it emerged from the period where the English language was at its most expressive and beautiful,” says David Silk, Anglican bishop of Ballarat and a member of the church’s liturgy panel. “It has a music, a poetry, a rhythm and a vivid style which the English language hasn’t really aspired to since. When people start to recite the 23rd psalm, `The Lord is My Shepherd’, it’s the King James version they still slip into.”

He says modern English is verbose and has replaced the active and the vivid with the passive and the abstract. “If Columbus set sail not in 1492 but now, he would not have said the world was flat, he would have said the world is an open-ended on-going situation.”

Newbrook, a lecturer in linguistics at Monash University, acknowledges the force of the King James Bible in the development of English; it was so dominant that many did not realise it was a translation and opposed change to it with the argument that “If the King James Bible was good enough for St Paul, it’s good enough for me”.

But Newbrook takes a more cynical view of its claim to grandeur: “Often something does sound very august and full of dignity and nicely written when it’s a bit archaic. At the time of Jesus, it was thought that really good Greek was speaking as Athenians had spoken 500 years earlier.”
Much of the impact of the King James Bible is being undone by the march of history. Its unifying effect on the language boosted English nationalism, but colonialism has since made English an international language. The King James Bible helped standardise usage and spelling, but email and cybertalk are “de-standardising” again with grammatical shortcuts, abbreviations, phonetic spellings and neologisms, according to Horsfield.

After electronic media, advertising is the main influence on language today, he says. “Advertising is continually working with language to make it do new things, such as creating ambiguous sentences that connote rather denote; `Just Do It’, for example, or `We do it all for you’, where it actually invites the reader to share in the construction of meaning.”

HORSFIELD says there is still debate about which level of culture should carry faith. In Sweden, entrepreneurs plan a glossy new version of the Bible aimed at young people in which mass-media icons are photographed as Biblical characters; supermodel Claudia Schiffer is tipped for Eve and Pamela Anderson’s ex-lover Markus Schenkenberg for Adam. There will be some nudity, said one of the promoters, “because the Bible is very sensual and we are going to exploit that”. Some church figures are appalled; others think anything that draws people in is a good thing.

“This is another attempt to translate the Bible into the vernacular,” Horsfield says. “The same struggle is going on now: Should Christian faith be preserved in an elevated language which is no longer the language of the marketplace?”

Alister McGrath would say no. McGrath loves the King James Bible. Like every child born in Britain in 1953, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation, he was given a copy by command of the Queen. Probably unlike most of them, he pored over it, fascinated by the words and the stories. But, discussing the pressure from traditionalists who wanted to retain the King James Bible, he argues that they “actually betray the intentions and goals of those who conceived and translated it – namely, to translate the Bible into living English”.

The man who preached to the poor and the dispossessed in marketplaces 2000 years ago would probably agree.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, by Alister McGrath, Hodder and Stoughton, $34.95.

First published in The Age.