State schools 'failing girls who want to study physics'

Girls physics lesson Teachers should challenge the misconception that physics is not for girls

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Nearly half of all state schools in England do not send any girls on to study A-level physics, research by the Institute of Physics (IOP) has found.

The IOP study indicates that the situation is likely to be similar in schools across the UK.

The research also shows that girls are much more likely to study A-level physics if they are in a girls' school.

The Department for Education said it was working to attract top physics graduates into teaching with bursaries.

An analysis of data from the national pupil database showed that 49% of state co-educational schools in England did not send any girls to study physics at A-level in 2011.

Girls were two-and-a-half times more likely to go on to study A-level physics if they came from a girls' school. The same is not true of other science subjects, suggesting that physics is uniquely stereotyped in many mixed schools as a boys' subject.

Start Quote

Physics opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities - this research shows that schools are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls”

End Quote Professor Sir Peter Knight President, Institute of Physics

The study was of English schools because comparable data is not available from schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the disparity and problems were likely to be largely similar, the IOP said.

It said that schools should be set targets by the government to increase the proportion of girls studying physics from the current national average of just one in five.

It has also asked head teachers to challenge the misconception among teaching staff that physics is not for girls.

Girls at Lampton School in London talk about why they love physics

There has been a slight increase in the number of girls studying physics in recent years but this has been dwarfed by a more rapid increase in boys studying the subject.

In 2011 physics was the fourth most popular subject for A-levels for boys in England. For girls it was the 19th most popular. IOP president Prof Sir Peter Knight says many girls are not receiving the education they are "entitled to".

Graphic showing A level entries for science

"The English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics or the lack of female physicists on television, for example, can play a part in forming girls' perception of the subject. We need to ensure that we are not unfairly prejudicing girls against a subject that they could hugely benefit from engaging with," he said.

Science is a Girl Thing Some felt the European Union's "Science: It's a Girl Thing" missed the mark and caused great offence

The salaries of physics graduates are well above the national average. Over a working lifetime, the average physics graduate earns about £100,000 more than graduates of non-science subjects.

Prof Knight said: "Physics is a subject that opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities. This research shows that half of England's state schools are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls."

The disparity is much greater for physics than any other science subject. There are slightly more A-level entries for biology from girls in 2012, for chemistry the numbers are about the same and 40% of pupils studying A-level maths are girls. Of those studying A-level physics, only 20% are girls.

Dr Heather Williams is a medical physicist working for the NHS and head of ScienceGrrl, an organisation trying to inspire more girls to study science. She believes that while many attitudes toward women have changed across many areas of society, science, and physics in particular, remain stuck in the past.

Start Quote

These figures are eye-wateringly bad and it is extremely depressing to see how many schools fail to excite girls' appetite for physics”

End Quote Prof Athene Donald Cambridge University

"Physical sciences are seen as a male dominated area," she said.

"That's partly because there is a lack of visibility of female physicists to act as role models and so girls don't see themselves following a number of career paths."

Prof Athene Donald, a physicist and gender equality champion at the University of Cambridge also feels a lack of role models is partly to blame.

"These figures are eye-wateringly bad and it is extremely depressing to see how many schools fail to excite girls' appetite for physics.

"From the statistics alone it is impossible to tell whether this is due to factors within the school, peer pressures and cultural cues, lack of role models or a genuine lack of interest in the subject.

"That girls from single sex girls' schools don't seem to lack interest in physics, however, suggests it is not the last of these. It is to be hoped that these figures will serve as a wake-up call to schools to investigate where the problems do lie."

Earlier this year the European Commission launched a video taster of an initiative to engage more girls in science called Science: It's a Girl Thing. The video aimed to reach out to a young female audience normally uninterested in science by having a pop feel.

There is some market research information that indicates that girls did find the imagery positive, engaging and fun. But many, including Dr Williams found the video offensive.

The anger generated by the video was the impetus for the formation ScienceGrrl (hence the Grr). Dr Williams believes efforts to engage girls by telling them that science is relevant to cosmetics and fashion are misguided.

Girls and boys that went on to take physics A-level (%)
Percentage of girls and boys that went on to take physics A-level

"The thing that I would object to is that that is not what science looks like. It is actually something that I find useful and fascinating and fun."

A Department for Education spokesman said: "We are working with the Institute of Physics to attract the brightest physics graduates into teaching with the highest ever bursaries.

"We are also giving the IOP £6.85m over the period 2011-14 to provide an inspiring, engaging and innovative programme of physics lessons and continuing professional development for teachers.

"We want to see new recruits developing pupils' interest in the subject and pushing schools with low take-up and attainment in physics to encourage more girls to study physics at A-level."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Aren't these figures skewed by the low number of single sex state schools? I imagine that they are including girls independent schools as well...which makes the results suspect. I would imagine that it is also true that more boys at boys schools go on to study physics at A level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    In my 1970s state comp our male O level teacher openly said he didn't like teaching girls because they were useless at Physics. He repeatedly ignored the four of us and focussed attention on the male students. To those who ask 'so what', I would say that if discrimination/discouragement still lies behind the low numbers, it needs to be addressed as it will put off potentially great scientists!

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Dont bother studying Physics at university unless you are prepared to do a PhD. There are no jobs for physics at graduate level and even if you do get a job your career won't go anywhere.

    If you do a PhD don't to a postdoctoral as you will only be given a1-2 year contact.

    there is not much money in it, while the marketing grads will get 80k for deciding the what colour blue the product is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    'send'? Surely you *choose* your A Levels based on either what you're god at or what leads you on to the degree or career you want?
    This 'study' shows that, generally, girls dont choose Physics. so what?

    I anyone is portraying Sciences and maths in a negative fashion, it would be the media - far too many people being rewarded for their lack of intellect on TV, radio etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I am at an all girls school, in the Lower Sixth (Y12) and out of a year of 20 girls, only 3 do Physics A Level. In the same option blocks are softer subjects such as Psychology and Business Studies, which more girls are opting for. We have already phased out Sociology, on account of its relative simplicity as a subject. Girls should not have to choose between a soft and a hard subject (ie Physics)

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Carol (30): in a girls' school the girls with bigger egos crowd out the others; in a boys' school the boys with bigger egos do the same. That's life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    This has been known for years - I remember similar analysis being reported many years ago where the researchers found that boys and girls at mixed sex schools were far more likely to follow gender stereotypical subjects, than pupils at single sex schools.

    The simple answer would be to increase the number of single sex secondary schools but I guess that's socio-politically unacceptable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I'm 16 and studying physics a-level at an all girls school, it's one of the smallest a-level classes... We were encouraged to take physics and I'm glad I did because the gcse was boring compared to what were learning now. The gcse just felt like a driving lesson or teaching you about life, not the world of physics which is unfair to the subject as this doesn't happen with the other sciences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Wow have the powers that be just noticed that! I did Physics A'level 20 years ago and was one of only 2 girls in the class. So long as the girls who are interested get the same oppotunities as boys and aren't discouraged by sexist teachers where is the problem. I don't see a big push to get boys to do textiles. Shock horror the sexes are different!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    28. geoff hughes
    "My next daughter was in the first year group to study so-called '21st century science' at GSCE, a syllabus which was more like science for dummies with simplistic topics and basic multiple guess exams that bored her and saddened me. She did not continue her physics."

    You've hit the nail right on the head, here. This course is an insult.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I did a Physics degree in 1973 -I was the only girl of 30 men at Liverpool. My maths teacher told me my maths wasn't good enough but I got A level advanced maths and was persuaded by Unilever to continue my education

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    it's often observed amongst poor people and minorities."

    Who are also under-represented in physics courses compared with other STEM subjects. This is largely due to bad science and physics teaching in much of the state education sector and the career choices of some minorities to prefer to study medicine, law and other direct routes into professions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    As a professional engineer struggling to recruit then YES it is important that girls are not turned off from physics. What I hear from my daughter is that she is interested in science but when they are put in mixed project groups the boys take over and ignore the girls even when the girls are right and they are wrong. This discourages her. So the ones with big egos succeed, which tend to be boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I got an A level in physics in 2002 and went on to study physics with space science and technology at Leicester uni which I achieved an MPhys in. I then studied for a PhD at the physics department in planetary science and am now a secondary school teacher. I hope I can use my knowledge and passion to now inspire more young people to study physics in higher education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    My eldest daughter was taught physics in a mixed state grammar school and is now enjoying engineering at university.

    My next daughter was in the first year group to study so-called '21st century science' at GSCE, a syllabus which was more like science for dummies with simplistic topics and basic multiple guess exams that bored her and saddened me. She did not continue her physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Im 17 and doing a level physic, I failed it the first time so I am now doing it again, but doing it the first time round I was the only girl in the class :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry A'level. It was only in the physics class that I was the lone female and upon entering the class was greeted by the teacher saying "This is physics A' level, dear" with a disparaging look. I think it is fair to say this attitude isn't helping to encourage girls to consider physics an option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "What Mandate
    Trying to force girls to enjoy the subjects the boys like and vice versa is not equality it is stupidity"

    This isn't about forcing anyone to do anything. It's about making sure they have the option to do something and being able to make informed choices about taking that option that they actually might find interesting and rewarding. Otherwise girls and physics lose out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    "The Department for Education said it was working to attract top physics graduates into teaching with bursaries" are playing political games to be seen to be doing something.
    A lot of my cohort on a PGCE took jobs before qualifying, the NQT year has no loans, bursaries, tax credits and is untenable. DoE should look at the whole. The NQT pay scales need urgent review.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    I think a lot of people confuse equality with sexuality. Girls are not boy and boy are not girls. Trying to force girls to enjoy the subjects the boys like and vice versa is not equality it is stupidity.


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