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 182.

    As a girl who studies physics and then went into engineering, I believe the "Science it's a girl thing" was massivly offensive and suggested that girls would only go into science because maybe then they could make lipstick. This is not the message that should be being put out. The message should be that science is facinating and girls are just as capable as men.

  • Comment number 181.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    "These figures are eye-wateringly bad" is a quote from the article. Really?! REALLY?! Eye-wateringly bad?

    There are a lot of things going on at the moment that make me want to cry: changes to the NHS, lack of action in Syria, disabled people forced into poverty, bankers' bonuses. "Not very many girls doing physics" doesn't even draw the faintest hint of a tear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    Might I suggest that if the answer is a female scientist/presentor with as high a profile as Brian Cox etc that it happens nder two conditions:

    A/. They take the starring role in a science programme(s)

    B/. They also appear alongside Cox/whoever as co-presentor on a second series, but as equal status presenter, not just as a side kick to the bloke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    The last two schools I have had the misfortune to work in chose not to offer AS or A2 physics. One didn't offer chemistry either. Biology seems an easier option to teach and easier to recruit qualified staff.

    League tables again. Why risk students failing a rigorous subject when they can be trained to pass coursework and exams in art, English or media studies?

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    I went to a single sex school for GCSES and switched to a mixed comp for A-Levels. I studied Maths, Further Maths, Physics and PE all through to A2. In Further Maths and Physics I was the only girl, and I was subject to an awful lot of sexist comments in my subjects - by the boys and teachers alike. I persevered and am now studying science, but I wasn't encouraged by my teachers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    The only comment I can make is that the best and brightest engineers I have ever met were both ladies. I use that term intentionally, they were both feminine without losing one iota of 'edge' in their ability.

    Sadly, both are now dead. Where are the younger ones?

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    The main reason that girls are now surging ahead academically is that the barriers to their success have been removed. When I went to grammar school the boys' grammar school had far more places than the girls', the 11+ was weighted to allow more boys to pass and the boys' school had more good graduate teachers.That one sex or other should be better in some subjects is falsehood based in the past.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    It starts in early years. Most Primary teachers are female and most have difficulty in enthusing and engaging with children in science/technology. Guess what message that gives. There are ways to tackle this and some of our women engineers and scientists can trace their success back to early years - but it will need strong political backing to get the majority of Primaries to adjust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    So what? More than half do.

    Is it really a problem or are we making it one?

    As far as I can see, nothing is stopping girls from taking Physics A'level if they want to.

    And will pushing them into it make better pupils?

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    I'm getting fed up listening to how girls have been "failed" in some aspect of the education system where there's not a 50/50 split when boys have been totally failed for the last 20+ years since the introduction of GCSEs which are a feminised system.

    Where's the huge outcry and action plan to increase the percentage of boys attaining A-C at GCSE to bring them up to the level of the girls?

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    I didnt do phisics a level cos there wos no girls in that class to chat up so i did english and jography a levels passin them with flyin colors.

    Im now an inglish teacher and we dont have much lasses in sience at all at my scool.

    i blame the govverment and the alians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Global Yawning were you my highschool physics teacher? Top three in the class were girls. I'd say we knew our limits and obviously surpassed yours.

  • Comment number 169.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Same things happen to males also. I wanted a career in computing so decided to do typing to improve my skills. I was one of two males in a large class of girls and guess who got the only 2 manual typewriters?
    Things never change I'm now an engineer and many male engineers attitudes towards female engineers is short sighted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Let's have more of Dr Lucie Green of UCL. She does a great job of promoting physics. Taking physics more seriously as an academic discipline with untold practical benefits, so that fewer of our female physicists (actually our physicists period) have to go overseas to find work would be a great idea too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Girls fail girls in Physics. If it's offered and they decide to take sociology or media studies instead then whose fault is that. Of course if it's not offered or diluted into "science" then the schools and education authorities should hang their heads in shame. Physics is the most fundamental insight into how the world and everything in it works. It really should be compulsory in my opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Can everyone drag themselves out of the 50s and realise girls can be more than secutaries and nurses... Let them do physics"

    Can the feminists drag themselves into the present, too? Not everything is a man's boot keeping women down - A Levels are a CHOICE!! If a girl wants to be a PA, nurse or even housewife or, god forbid, NOT choose a Physics A Level, whats the problem?

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    I'm intrigued at how many comments here ignore the available evidence. If the disparity between genders is simply because of an inherent difference between boys and girls, why do so many more girls at single-sex schools continue with the subject? That very strongly suggests that it is something about the schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

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

    Government propaganda won't change anything

    Boys are boys and girls are girls because OVER 10 MILLION YEARS THAT'S THE SYSTEM WHICH CONQUERED PLANET EARTH

    Genetics don't care about our "opinions"

    Nowadays the West suppresses male and female sexuality so we need bucketfuls of viagra and 50 shades of grey


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