State schools 'failing girls who want to study physics'

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

Related Stories

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."

Follow Pallab on Twitter


More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    ...Science is cool, but someone needs to break the media cycle and say so. As long as Kerry Katona's latest meltdown is presented as far more important than our species' future, it won't happen; journalists (in the main) are too lazy and regurgitating junk is too easy.

    Well said, spot on! Sadly chav culture rules our schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    If girls choose not to study physics, why is that the schools' fault? Equality of opportunity does not necessarily translate into equal numbers, whether we are talking about soldiers, MPs, child-minders or physicists.

    Although it is borderline-sexist to mention it in these politically correct times, males and females have evolved different skills to play different roles in society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    211. newsman face
    ... Perhaps males and females are just different from one another!

    They are, and although I never studied Biology, I became aware of those differences at the age of fourteen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    Surely this is more to do with 'peer pressure' than schools biasing the choice?

    Physics is all too often portrayed in the media as a career for nerds, tom-boys or women who try too hard to 'sex it up.

    It takes many years to get anywhere with a career in physics because those individuals who do pursue it, treat it as a vocation. Money is secondary. Employers know that and exploit it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    If girl "X" isn't opting to do Physics then neither will girl "Y". If girl "X" suddenly has a change of heart and opts to do Physics after all, girl "Y" opts never to speak to girl "X" ever again and starts spreading remours about girl "X's" personal hygiene.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    The school I went to didn't treat girls any differently from boys in Physics classes. I did Standard Grade Physics and got a high enough grade to progress to Higher but chose not to simply because I didn't really like Physics, not because I wasn't encouraged to. There definitely did seem to be a higher proportion of boys who chose the subject though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    Can anyone who's claiming "boys naturally like physics, girls don't", etc, please re-read the article! At girls schools, lots of girls do Physics, i.e. the lack of female Physicists in mixed schools is due to social pressure, *not* lack of ability!

    I think both girls and boys can benefit from some level of single sex teaching, so that their interests aren't influenced by historical gender roles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Strange@mark, no one worried about girls when the majority of teachers were men. The feminisation of education is a myth. We should be looking hard at how bright boys are dragged down by modern laddism in comprehensive schools. In mixed ability schools, girls who are studious are less likely than boys to be affected by the anti-geek anti learning attitudes which pervade male youth culture .

  • Comment number 214.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Sad to say this but its Physicists who fail Physics. I was astonished at the politically correct fuddy duddy reaction to the Girls in Physics video. It was fun and it had a banging sound track. No wonder girls don't want to do Physics when it is run by a grey boring old male establishment without a gram of life in them. Simon Cowel, evil though he is will do more for Physics than the establishment

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    In the UK, when girls underperform in a subject it is always, and I mean always, the curriculum's fault.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    It has hardly changed in the 45 years since I was doing A levels. Girls tended towards biology and chemistry then as well. Perhaps males and females are just different from one another!

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    I didn't say it suggested they weren't as capable. It suggests that all girls like fashion and makeup and steriotypically girly things and will only go into science if they think it's sexy. That's patronising. Most girls that will go into science don't want to be judged on their looks which the video focuses on. Seriously watch it, it's hugely patronising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    I do wonder if this is a cultural thing within the UK. I am friends with many highly qualified and successful scientists. The gender split is pretty much 50:50 but every single female scientist I know has moved to the UK from abroad to take up her research position here. They don't seem to have battled against this attitude of "science is for boys, it's about brain chemistry innit".

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    So what? Perhaps they just don't like it.

  • Comment number 207.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    Feminism is the belief that both sexes may become equal by focusing solely on one of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Kids watch the x-factor and they think that success is being selected for an audition to appear on a TV show for the brain dead which will then turn them into a mega star.
    Our culture is at fault here, 60% of the country's aerospace engineers will retire in the next 10 years. We need to inspire the younger generation on a much grander scale, a manned mission to mars would do be perfect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    54. Derpsworth
    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,...
    Agree up to a point, but 2% seems very low. Perhaps we should be asking why so few.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    Those who said girls are pragmatic and clever doesn't mean success-just so. My gifted scientist son found science doesn't make much money nor does being clever get you the credit. Law would have given a better return for his efforts. Girls may be pragmatic and choose A levels likely to yield high grades and degrees with the best prospects for women.With high tuition fees more boys may do the same


Page 20 of 31


More Education & Family stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.