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 162.

    "...State schools 'failing girls who want to study physics'..."


    Schools often fail the innately perfectly bright, in preventing them from learning to be stupid, from more dominant kids, from ignorant backgrounds.

    This is at least equally so for boys.

  • Comment number 161.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    I've met (and taught) some extremely talented female physicists. Unfortunately, the only one who had any sort of career or earned a decent salary from it was Kathy Sykes.

    The number of women in science (and computing) is limited by women seeing the writing on the wall better than their male counterparts. You don't get paid for clever or able to do stuff. You get paid for claiming the credit.

  • Comment number 159.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Women, know your limits!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Tosh! If a student can't motivate/encourage themselves they shouldn't be doing A-Levels! I did the subjects I wanted, with no encouragement needed from teachers or special treatment. Most girls I knew chose to do English/Phsycology (almost all female classes) I never saw any surverys about how more men should be encouraged here! Women need to take responsibiliity for their own actions!

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    One cannot underestimate the "Brian Cox" effect (not just him, but the wider programming of science on telly) and wonder if the answer to level the playing field is to find a female Brian Cox?

  • Comment number 155.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    So what? What percentage of schools sent any boys to do A-Level textiles? Don't people realise that girls and boys are different?

    In any case, I'm a girl and I did A-Level physics. I'd say just under half the class were female.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    @Paul There are articles and if you read them you would know that time and money in quantity are directed at encouraging boys to read and developing ways of teaching English, reading and languages that enable boys to overcome their later maturity. The modern lad culture attitude is to blame -boys who went to grammar schools in the 60s never had trouble with reading or languages, including Latin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Perhaps single sex teaching is the way forward?

    There were no girls in my A level Physics class, and I got an A. I put this down to the fact that my permanently horny adolescent self wasn't distracted by the attractive girls in their school uniforms.

    It makes me think of that Family Guy episode where Quagmire and Peter swear off women and end up billionaires.

  • Comment number 151.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    "Arab Spring countries have seen a 100% population increase in the last 30 years alone"

    Good for them. I don't know if you've noticed but this island is fairly small and quite crowded. The LAST thing we need is a 100% population increase.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    It's great to see this issue highlighted on the BBC. I did Physics A-level (oen of 2 girls in the class) and Physics at Oxford, and continue to work in a Physics based field (Astronomy). I've never quite been sure why I stuck at it despite clear messages I shouldn't (from peers, and adults around me).

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Can everyone drag themselves out of the 50s and realise girls can be more than secutaries and nurses.Can people not remember names such as Irène Curie-Joliot, Mary Somerville and Maria Mitchell? Saying girls are not good at physics is like saying fish are not good at simming. I'm assured the brain capacity is more than equal to her fellow man. Let them do physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Physics is mathematical
    Girls don't do maths

    Boys don't do much childcare and social work and cooking

    It's called 10 million years of genetic Darwinism

    The West has fought Darwinism for 30 years and our birthrate has stagnated

    Arab Spring countries have seen a 100% population increase in the last 30 years alone

    Our future is to become an insignificant minority

    You can't beat mother nature

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Where's all the articles about how schools are failing boys in general? A lot of university courses like 'woman studies' have been created to get more females into university. Now though? there are less males even gettnig into college nevermind university. More articles from the feminine imperative as we continue to disable masculinity of any sort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    "This 'natural difference between the sexes' argument is 40 years out of date and utter rubbish"

    Not apparently for most human individuals who still behave as if there is a difference between the sexes. Funny that an entirely non-existent distinction should be so darn evident everywhere you look

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    I studied double maths A-Level and I was the only girl in the class. I had to put up with constant sexist rubbish from the other pupils. If I had taken physics instead of chemistry along with it I would have been the only girl in that class too, it would have been unbearable! But in the end I got my revenge by getting higher marks than every guy in school...

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I have several female friends currently studying A level physics, and one of them is taught by a female teacher. Sounds like this isn't that common though.

    I firmly believe that doing the 3 sciences separately at GCSE is better than this 'double award' stuff.


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