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 262.

    Does it really matter?

    But no doubt some bright spark in the Labour party or similar movement will now suggest positive discrimination, all girl lists and quotas as we must have "equality" in everything these days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    Its a shame that girls opt for the soft easier courses. It would be better for the country if they tried the science subjects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.


    Heather Couper was a high profile TV science presenter in the 80's and 90's who also had a degree in Physics & Astronomy. Whether her presence on the screen had a material effect in the number of girls studying Physics would be interesting to know...

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    In my secondary school my physics teachers were uninspiring and unhelpful. Fast forward many years and I'm doing a PhD in astrophysics after a rather circular route and I love it. The problem isn't just about teachers who don't actively promote physics to women. The problem is that many physics teachers are either 'old school', have little physics training or are not particularly good physicists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    Probably not very PC, but this is similar to the "Glass Ceiling" issue. Female candidates have to put themselves forward to be in the selection process. In a mixed school, the girls opt out of that process for the same reasons they opt out of PE. The misconception comes from themselves. With no boys around to impress with their feminine allure, girls will just get on with it,

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    I have a little boy. He likes to play with cars and bricks. I also have a little girl. She doesn't like to play with cars and bricks. Am I failing her as a parent? Hopefully some of you can see what I am getting at here....

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    To be completely honest, we should be encouraging STEM subjects as a whole. Instead of saying "hey why do some girls not want to do physics" lets say "more people should take these subjects, how can we make that happen".
    I study chem eng, there aren't many girls on course and those that are, find that the jobs and the lifestyle after graduation aren't that appealing to them. Each to their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    In the early 70s I was at a public (grammar) school and we had quite a few girls doing A-level physics. But we also had a good role model as our Physics teacher was a woman and bery enthusiastic with it.

    Our Chemistry teacher was also a wonam and there were quite a few girls in that class too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Is it just girls and physics? What about Computer Science and other technical or engineering orientated subjects?

    In from an earlier age what about boys and drama or gymnastics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.

    As a manager in a technical scientific group this is a very big issue. In my team of seven we have no women. We recently hired a new team member no women applied. A level students need to do physics to set them on a path that leads to these jobs.
    My daughters both have physics A levels they studied at an excelent sixth form it could not have been better but still had only 4 girls in their class.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    This looks like an excellent argument for promotion classes or even schools segregated by gender.

  • Comment number 251.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    THe research is possibly flawed, you cant force girls (or anyone) to do a particular course, its like saying that schools fail boys by not getting them into home econmics A-level courses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    Re: #157, perhaps if you'd had some teaching, you'd have learnt how to spell.

    "157. laughingdevil
    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..any surverys...responsibiliity"

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    I listened to this news report with my daughter on the way to sixth form this am. she actually has more girls than boys in her A'level physics class! Her senior school was visited by the institue of Physics when she was taking her GCSEs and I do think that this helped enthuse her. The Institue needs to get out there more and inspire young girls.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    I am a physics teacher in an all girl state school. We champion in our science department that ALL girls can succeed in physics. It is in an area of relative deprivation; and yet girls are taking up physics.

    The perception out there is that is hard. It is not. It is easy; you're homework is minimal and you don't have to write essays. You understand the universe too. What's not to love!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    At A level I was one of 4 girls doing physics out of 3 classes of 30 students. Have to say we had a ball and the male teachers were great. That was the 70s and we thought we were trail blazing but clearly it was a damp squib!
    Check out places like the Cambridge Science Centre Chain reaction video clips though where there are female scientists as role models for the future generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    science engineering and maths are what they are, you're either interested or you arent. By GCSE you should learned enough about physics to know if you want to choose it for A level. If you've already decided what career path you want, it might dictate your choices too.
    At no point are men saying no to women; its a choice the pupil makes! Theres a gender disparity in most professions/subjects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    I was at a UK girls-only school that didn't even have a physics lab until just before my O levels. Any girl brave enough to insist on physics had to go to the boy's school up the road. It wasn't encouraged.
    Things have obviously not improved.
    Fortunately, (service brat), we moved abroad. I went to an army school where we could do what we wanted.
    It's fun being the only girl in the class!

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    @230 Birchy - well said. I remember back in the 80s I tried to do a dressmaking class at college because I was into fashion and music (and still am to an extent). As a heterosexual male, I was constantly sniggered at by the girls and the teacher and basically gave up after a short period. Copping out, you may say, but it gave me an insight to what girls may be subjected to in a role reversal.


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