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 242.

    Physics fail girls, so what? Every other subject taught in our schools fails boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    Just to bring a little balance to the endless upvoted anecdotes:

    I went to a mixed grammar school. My physics class was 20% female. The girls were not the best or the brightest. They were average at best. The best physicists in the class (and the school) were male.

    Let's not try to avoid sexism by claiming that all girls make great physicists and that all boys are irksome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    At least, there seems to be a possibility for pupils of either sex to study whatever subject they choose, with far fewer limitations than obtained under the old Grammar/Secondary Modern system. Brownie points for the Comprehensive system, it appears. Or did girls' Grammar schools of the past offer Physics? It would be interesting to know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    Girls are good at domestic science

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    I did A Level physics (without A Level maths, to boot) and there were more girls in my class than in history (4 out of 10 as opposed to 2 out of 10)...and isn't history meant to be a "girly" subject?! I went on to do a foundation year to do a degree in physics and only changed (onto nanotechnology) due to the incompetence of the physics department at my university. It's an individual's choice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Well this is something that is happening in Secondary schools as Primary schools are fantastic at promoting science, but then a lot seems to happen in the Secondary sector that seems to put young people off learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    I studied double science GCSE at a mixed comprehensive then A-level physics. I studied physics at university and also got a physics PhD. At university I met plenty of other girls who had followed a similar route although it appears we must be in the minority.

    From this article and the other comments, I think it comes down to having teachers that don't treat physics as a 'male' subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    I went from an all girls school to a mixed sixth form college. There were only 3 girls in class of 25 studying physics. Physics teacher said why aren't you girls next door studying domestic science? my reply ' I know how to bake cakes Sir I am here to learn Physics!' At the end of term I made him a cake. I went on to be an engineer- these teachers comments were very typical in engineering world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    @ 216.some_person
    "At girls schools, lots of girls do Physics"
    More girls do physics at girls schools but it's still low, in my year 6/117 did physics whereas ~30 took chemistry & ~40 biology. I don't necessarily think it's a problem though, I don't think there's the prejudice that girls can't now & so it's more of whether they want to. There are no complaints about the lack of male hairdressers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    when i was in school boys and girls did biology and physics together for years 1 and 2 and then girls did biolgy and boys did physics, regardless of what you wanted caveat emptor

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    I was the only girl in my A'Level Physics class in 1990-2. There were 6 boys and me. When we had to pair up for lab work I was always the one left out. But having been predicted an E/N I worked really hard and got a C. It is one of my proudest achievements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    This whole article reeks of political correctness !
    You'd be as well to ask why so few boys study Home Economics or Dance at A level. It's because most of them don't find it interesting - just as most girls don't find Physics interesting.
    Thats the simple answer - but the trendy lefties, the hand wringing liberals and the feminist science zealots don't like hearing that...

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    There are a lot of things which girls give up on because it's maybe a little bit too technical and they feel the social pressure to avoid it, just as boys of my generation felt the pressure to avoid subjects like art and "home economics" (which im told is now banned in many schools for being sexist).

    It's no wonder kids these days lack the very basic skills. Too much political correctness......

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    201. "The feminisation of education has also brought barriers down in front of boys who would excel in hands-on settings."

    Baseless propaganda from tedious "masculists".

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    It is all about social conditioning. Pick up any women's magazine and you won't find any article on anything remotely to do with physics and this starts at a very early age. More worrying is the general perception these days, male or female, that engineering and science are "boring" and that being a celebrity is far more important. If this attitude persists and grows, this country is doomed,

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    When adolescant girls can look up to likes of Helen Skelton instead of trash like Rhianna and the likes then it might be more tempting to persue Physics careers instead of worrying about make up and relationships..

    Too much pressure from the wrong ideals is not helping to even the balance of boys and girls liking the thought of this career path.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Of course! when girls arent choosing physics its sexism - blame the men! and when boys arent achieving its lads! blame the men

    you say anti-learning anti-geek attitudes of male culture? 4th most popular subject would disagree with you.
    But, girls couldnt possibly have a negative culture, could they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    I did physics at university and it was very male dominated. I'm now doing research in Materials Science and all of our research group are male. The physical sciences and mathematics seem dominated by males, a fact often overlooked by people who say women are 'taking over the world'. I don't know it's due to differences in the brains of men and women, cultural norms or some combination of both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    what a pointless and patronising feature. i found physics extremely hard...a lot of maths and a lot similar to mathematical reasoning. i studied word based subjects at alevel like english and psychlogy but ended up takig p.e as my main focus was the only female to graduate from my bsc in football studies and am one of 2 completing my msc. some people just find different things intetesting!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    How come the BBC never runs articles on the falling number of boys entering higher education?


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