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 282.

    We live in a culture where boys and girls are expected to like different things, always depicted as doing so, and so we tend to develop along those lines. That's no-one's fault, but it IS something we can at least acknowledge and potentially try to ameliorate.

    I guess what I'm saying is, I can't remember the last movie I saw that had a female physicist in it. I think it might've been Contact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    @271 "Young men like cars, planes, guns and machines"

    Because of social conditioning from the moment they are born, they get positive attention for doing boy things and negative attention for doing anythingh girly. "you like guns don't you? yes you do, here have a chocolate bar".

    Social conditioning is terrible, it limits so many young peoples futures before they can even speak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    I went to a mixed sex school and loved physics but my teacher was not interested in teaching me. I could have my hand up the whole lesson for help and he would completely ignore me. He was never interested in teaching the girls. :-(

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    It makes me laugh when we have these government driven initiatives to encourage more people to study STEM subjects.
    There are very few related jobs when you graduate ! Unless you study a masters or PhD it's hard to get a job in anything science related without leaving the country. Computing is probably the only exception. STEM subjects WILL get you a job in banking & finance though !

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    The interesting point in the article is that more girls from single-sex schools study physics"

    Go to the Cambridge Assessment website, have a look at the stats - quite a few subjects are taken more by either or both sexes in single sex schools compared to mixed. this article is biased drivel from the IOP. pupils tend to do more A levels in general in single sex rather than mixed

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    I did a physics degree in the 80s and there were about 25% females on the course. Maybe their numbers are declining?

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    The statistics indicate widespread sex discrimination in our schools, whether teachers are willing to admit it or not. I once asked a chemistry teacher what his strategy was for inspiring the girls in his class, and he responded that chemistry wasn't for everybody so he had no specific strategy in place. I have had similar interactions with physics and maths teachers. Shameful...

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    "Girls were two-and-a-half times more likely to go on to study A-level physics if they came from a girls' school."

    If this is about 'male brains' and 'female brains', are we to determine that girls who go to girls' schools have significantly different brains to girls who go to mixed schools?

    Or perhaps there's something to be said for single-sex classes. Boys and girls may both benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    Give it a rest
    Schools don't "send" pupils to study any subjects. This isn't N Korea (yet).

    Supply and demand - the free market in action
    Poor demand from girls so UK plc does not supply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    As a man i find it terribly sexist that im not allowed to join the womens institute or forge a career as a page 3 model. It sadens me that i have to accept that in the society we live there are things that i will never be able to do just because of my sex. Women on the other hand seem to have every oppotunity to do whatever they want, because they choose not to doesn't mean its a sexist regime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    The interesting thing is that a higher percentage study the subject in all girls schools. This suggests that there is a social stigma as well as gender differences and if so this should be challenged. However as someone said earlier, it's not just girls we should be encouraging more people of both sexes to take science and engineering. Sadly though they tend not be be the highest paid jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    Boys and girls don't have the same interests.

    So why are we concerned that the numbers aren't identical? Stupid equality people. Stop busy-bodying. Young men like cars, planes, guns and machines. Its likely they will prefer to pursue physics. QED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    My younger sister did Higher Maths and Physics and got top grades. She is now at university studying engineering and architecture. There are only a small number of women on the same course as her but she has never felt discouraged at any point. If girls are genuinely interested in physics then I don't think there's anything stopping them. Maybe it's just that more boys than girls are interested.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    My daughter who is now a primary school teacher studied physics to A level. She then went to university and did a double degree in Astro-physics and music. I believe she was the only girl at her university doing Astro-physics though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    Girls failed by Science and Maths
    Boys failed by English and languages

    What else is new???? Been like that for years!

  • Comment number 267.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    The interesting point in the article is that more girls from single-sex schools study physics. It was for this reason I sent my daughter to one! There she was treated as a "student" not a "girl student". But I agree that we need more female science teachers who can inspire young people to follow science choices - but there will be a shortage of them as this is not a new problem!

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    When previous IOP President Jocelyn Bell Burnell was at university in the 60's she was the only female physics student on her course & was given a hard time by fellow students, universities have moved on since then although its still male dominated. It looks as though SOME schools haven't caught up, The BBC could help by using more female physicists in their programmes, has improved a bit recently

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    It would be interesting to see the actual numbers of students doing maths and science. Schools fail all students here. League tables and targets mean they push students towards "easy" subjects and away from Science and Mathematics with disastrous results for our economy. If science teaching was better more girls would be attracted to physics and away from psychology, law and media studies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    Nurses - 89% female
    Primary teachers - 85% female

    Cambridge Assessment A level uptake stats:
    Psychology A level - more than 2x more girls than boys
    Sociology - nearly 3x more girls
    Eng Lang& Lit, RS, Arts, languages ~ 2x more girls

    and more than half of FE students in UK are female

    the lack of women in manual and dangerous jobs isnt a problem but Physics A level choice is


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