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 62.


    I think that's the point - still apparently happening after all this time"

    Its obvious that, because youre from that era you see sexism wherever you look - i'd challenge you to find a teacher in 2012 saying "no dear, science is for boys". I'd wager that no girl is being told she cant choose Physics - if a negative perception exists, it lies with the person choosing the A level

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    @ 48

    You're wrong, physicists are virtually unemployable in the UK. Maybe you can get into banking if daddy has yuppie friends and as for IT only if the course that was studied involved lots of IT. Anyway these are NOT science jobs. I have a 1st and PhD in physics but am unemployable to very average A levels surely if my skills were in high demand employers wouldn't be so picky about a-levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    As an A-level teacher of 20 years' experience, I have to agree with 45.Mike from Brum. I see no argument here why our Hair & Beauty courses attract almost 100% female entries year-on-year, or why Art & Design pulls in 85% girls year-on-year, or why Engineering is almost exclusively male. This whole discussion smacks of social engineering and reeks of PC drivel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    '50.Derpsworth 'your frame of reference is ridiculously out of date'

    I think that's the point - still apparently happening after all this time, if head teachers are also being asked 'to challenge the misconception among teaching staff that physics is not for girls'. If discrimination is actively discouraging potentially good scientists, it needs to be addressed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Does this really just mean 'schools'? Does it include data for sixth form colleges? There are 100+ such colleges, some with 2000 students, teaching very large numbers of able A level students.It would be interesting to know what the Physics numbers are for SFCs.And what of FE colleges and Tertiary colleges?They too teach A levels. In many areas there are no schools with sixth forms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    This may also have something to do with girls deciding on their career goals earlier - my eldest son had no real idea what he wanted to do and took A level physics because he was good at it, but my 14 year old daughter already knows what she wants to do and despite enjoying her GCSE physics has no plan to take it at A level as it does not fit the route she has already decided on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    When I was at grammar school (shows how long ago that was), girls were not at all encouraged to take any science beyone the compulsory first two years - apparently, the only "science" we were expected to learn about was "domestic". Times have changed since then, but maybe not that much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    This is absolute rubbish, when I was at school girls excelled in "physiques"

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    49.Raymond Hopkins
    I stand by my assertion that A levels, degrees, occupations are all choices - if you dont choose a certain one, why should there be an inquiry?
    only 5 of us did Physics at A level in my 6th form, 2%! if anything, BOTH sexes arent choosing Physics, or STEM subjects (at the rate some bodies require)

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    There is some political correctness going on here. Lets just accept with no value judgement that girls and boys are not the same in all regards - thank goodness. Their minds and their interests can be quite different. Eg: why are top flight chess players almost exclusively male? Why are no women interested in plane spotting at airports? We are different - get over it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Last year in college, my physics class was the only one of my classes where the number of boys to girls was the most even ,7 boys to 6 girls compared to 12 boys and 5 girls in maths and 13 boys to 3 girls in economics. I am just starting my Physics degree and yes there are more boys than girls. But i am the second in my family to get a physics degree after my mother.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    "Girls and boy that went on to take Physics 'A' level"
    Are girls and boys objects rather than people? The appropriate personal pronoun is 'who', not 'that' which is an impersonal pronoun.

    Perhaps those who don't know the difference should avoid writing for publication.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    In my 1970s state comp..."

    sorry, HOW many years ago? your frame of reference is ridiculously out of date

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    39. Derpsworth
    ...This 'study' shows that, generally, girls dont choose Physics. so what?
    The reasons why girls don't choose Physics may be of some importance, much as the reasons why so many boys don't choose Biology. Public perceptions do have an effect. It would be a pleasant to think that students chose what interests them, rather than being subjected to off-putting attitudes from outside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    40 wideboy

    That's simply not true. Physics graduates are amongst the highest earners in the country After medicine, law and maths. Careers range from IT to investment banking. The analytical skills and numeracy of physics graduates are extremely high and employers want those.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Why on earth would we want to encourage more people to study physics, whether they be boys or girls. The skills shortage is a total lie, there is a jobs shortage for scientists. When I've talked with senior scientists; from neuroscientsits to physics professors that would all discourage people from studying science, you can be sure we have a problem. Much better to study media studies etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    My daughter went to a comprehensive school then went onto her local college to study A levels. She is now about to go to University to study Physics with Astro.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    More crap journalism from the BBC.
    The life sciences are dominated by females.
    Different people and different genders are drawn to different things.
    The PC brigade should understand that, no matter how much they want everyone to be the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I could be that girls are just not that good at physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    "I'm 16 and studying physics a-level [...] the gcse was boring compared to what were learning now."
    This is because the GCSE Science course has been dumbed down and is not likely to motivate someone who might be seriously interested in Physics. Not everyone is going to be interested in the Physics required to start an A' level course so why not put it back in the options?


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