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 202.

    Science is taught as an integrated subject in KS2, KS3 & KS4 (i.e. ages 9/10 - 15/16). This is fine in principle as most sciences are integrated in both concept and actuality.

    However it is possible to stress, within a topic, this topic is "mostly physics" to let pupils know what it is they truly love about science. Girls perform well in maths which transfers to Physics, a pity they are misled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    'The main reason that girls are now surging ahead academically is that the barriers to their success have been removed'

    The feminisation of education has also brought barriers down in front of boys who would excel in hands-on settings. Students are also more likely to not have a male role model at home due to misandric custody laws.

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    I did A-level Physics and was the only girl in the class. Never had any problem with it. I now work in IT and am the only girl there too. Haven't experienced any problems there either. If a pupil is interested in physics, or any science, then they will do it regardless of what gender they are. Without blowing my own trumpet, physics is hard so it's not everyones cup of tea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    The problem is that girls who take physics are often seen by other girls as 'uncool'; school hierarchy is all about perception.

    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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    @ 179 Little_Old_Me.

    Regarding your point B, they do exist. My favourite is Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a fantastically inspiring woman who does many science programs targeted at young people whist also holding down a job as an optical engineer designing satelittes at Astrium

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    A couple of years ago the Head of Cheltenham Ladies´ College was on Radio 4 and stated that, from experience, girls learn the sciences best when in an all-girl environment.
    It is a brave woman who is prepared to stand up for the facts rather than capitulating to popular opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    The message should be that science is facinating and girls are just as capable as men"

    Could you please tell me how exactly the message is girls arent as capable as men? I mean, we could always force girls into subjects they dont want to do - that'll really prove a point

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Unless you believe all this hokum about multi-tasking abilities etc, there should be now difference in the average intellectual abilities of men & women.

    The gender variations seen in many schools are caused by outdated sexist attitudes still influencing children's development today.

    Until society stops forcing the same old gender stereotyping on each generation, nothing will ever really change!

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    "113. Derpsworth
    Autism is more prevalent in boys - should we get the equality police onto that one too?"

    Surely autism is a pre-requisite for studying physics?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    There is NOTHING stopping these girls from entering whatever program they choose. If you decide that you want to do it, do it.

    It's very sad how the whole sexism debate has degenerated into a world where each gender is constantly blaming the other for their woes and crying because they were offended by the latest offhand comment from a leader/politician of the other gender - both sides.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Does it really matter? After all, if there are enough physicists in the workplace, who gives a toss as to their gender? If girls prefer biology or chemistry, so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    Don't forget we're talking about kids and as a kid you're told to listen to your teachers. If they warn you off a subject/career because they say there's no future in it for you, you listen and make the best choice you can. There is still not a lot of support for either boys or girls to do subjects that have been gender-assigned. It has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with attitude

  • Comment number 190.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    What of all the subjects where state schools are failing boys? When girls fall behind it is all because of "teaching methods unappealing to girls" or "bias". When the boys fall behind all you hear is "see, the girls were inherently superior all along". I wonder how many male"gender champions" there are? The Minister for Men can't comment, since there isn't one.

  • Comment number 188.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    Might I suggest that if the answer is a female scientist/presentor with as high a profile as Brian Cox"

    Why? If the passion is for physics, astronomy, space or anything, what does it matter the gender, race, sexual orientation or religion of the presenter?

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    "The main reason that girls are now surging ahead academically is that the barriers to their success have been removed"

    Or, if we are allowed to use 'barriers' our explanatory theories, then you could say, the main reason girls are surging ahead academically is that barriers have been introduced for boys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    When more boys take a subject, the schools are "failing girls". Why do we not see similar headlines for subjects in which girls dominate massively (Psychology, Art and Design, Sociology, English and Languages etc). When looking at a-level entries over all subject, girls are ahead (making up 54%).

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    I've worked on engineering and science topics with hundreds of young Primary aged children. Both sexes can show great excitement, curiosity, determination and ability. So it's not simply a flaw, but a crime to fail to encourage every interested mind to develop. Get it 'Right' from the early years.

  • Comment number 183.

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


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