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 82.

    If everything else were equal and fewer girls took up physics, that's a choice we should respect and leave it at that. It's about equality of access, not numbers I'm not sure we've fully left behind the prejudice against girls in science yet. Some people seem genuinely surprised when they see a woman in science - that's just plain wrong, it shouldn't matter. I think things are improving, though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "It said that schools should be set targets by the government..."

    This (in relation to subject choices) is a very bad idea. As it stands, pupils get free choice (despite the sexist-boogieman scaremongering in this article). They freely choose... If schools get set a target for girls doing physics, they'll start leaning heavily on the girls to pick physics whether they are interested or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I feel that part of the reason for this is that there are not enough good physics teachers. When I was in high school, I never felt like I was taught physics properly and thus I, of course, did not want to suffer it any longer than I had to.

    I also think that physics is a very stereotyped subject - girls and women just aren't represented at all in it, and so do not feel like they are welcome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The problem isn't necessarily that girls don't want to do Physics, it's that kids in general don't want to do Physics.

  • Comment number 78.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    "Prof Anthene Donald, a physicist and gender equality champion also feels a lack of role models is partly to blame"

    She would. But why does the role model have to be a physical representation of yourself? An outdated notion that deviates from actual equality. I'm black, i have white role models, admiration even for fictional characters, maybe i wasnt picking correctly?

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    @71 spot on Derpsworth. I could never imagine such an in-depth article about why boys are doing much worse in education, generally, than girls. But we find ONE academic subject where boys seem to be more interested and/or doing better and there's hell to pay, right? We must know WHY! Get some "gender champions" in here, stat, and let's sort this out! WHO'S WITH ME!?

  • Comment number 75.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    The headline suggests that girls wanting to study physics aren't being allowed to. But nothing in the article backs this up. All we have is a statistic that not many girls take up physics. Show us the statistics for how many girls have complained that they have been unable to take physics because of their school failing them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Why is it always the Schools that take the blame? Surely the pupils themselves and their parents have a say in what subjects are studied. Also, there's peer pressure. I know of one student who admits to steering away from sciences, which she was good at, because her friends said they were "geeky".

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I teach physics and despair at the disparity. I tell anyone who will listen that teenage girls are often more meticulous in their work and so are perfectly suited to what is, after all, a meticulous subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    10.Darren Shepperd
    so one subject is failing girls and its a crime yet we know schools as a whole are failing males and thats ok"

    I couldnt agree more - boys are getting jipped in all the formative years of education and throughout, but A Level choices of *some* girls is the big concern. What a joke

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    >46. Gillian Lindsay
    >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.

    Wants to be Mystic Meg?

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    maybe just maybe THE Majority of girls do not want to study physics !

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    You think its bad now just wait until we go back to the "all exams at the end" model. The modular/coursework courses were introduced because girls were achieving lower grades. I can see no reason why that issue won't reoccur when we revert. That will make "harder" subjects like physics less attractive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    The bigger picture is that girls are outperforming boys in almost all subjects. Articles like this and the annual photographs of blonde girls celebrating A Level results on TV and in papers compounds the problem. Empowering and encouraging girls is the right path for any school. The media, however needs to redress the balance. The only articles referring to boys in education are negative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Yet another article about how put-upon women and girls are. Change the record, BBC, this one is old and stale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    It seems that schools let let down all students at one stage or another.
    Is this true, or is it the meddling of the politicos that is the real reason that they are let down?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    What garbage! A levels are a choice obviously Physics doesn't fit in with the career choices that are being made. Besides which out of my 8 nieces, daughter and son its my 10 year old son who knows what he wants to do when he's older the girls ranging from 17 - 24 still don't have a clue. Perhaps earlier career mentoring is the way forward rather than potential positive discrimination

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    My daughter has just finished her A levels, which included physics, chemistry and maths. There were lots of girls in her class, so his must be a cultural issue in individual schools which aren't encouraging girls into science.

    However my daughter would not do a physics degree - she is doing chemistry, which is more girly?


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