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 322.

    It was slightly more girls than boys in my Higher Physics class (Scotland, state school, ~1993) . Generally science teaching was good at my school but out of the 3 sciences Physics teaching was significantly poorer than for Chem & Bio and the facilities in the physics labs were basic to say the least.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    When I was at school it wasn't only Physics girls weren't expected to be interested in. We were actually blocked from technical drawing classes, and a (male) maths teacher I had used to preface some of the more demanding work with the phrase "some of you boys should understand this". Little wonder that the girls performed poorly. I had hoped this had changed in 40 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    I was just pointing out that women have decent professions in movies, trying to say womens roles are diminished in movieland is incorrect. whats wrong with lawyer, doctor or biologist? I also said officers and presidents. You wanted films with female phycicists - i provided. If you want positive female leads in general its easily done - theyre not all housewives and secretaries

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    This has to be down to the beliefs of Heads and the quality of the teachers. Maybe I was fortunate, but my physics master enthused his subject and encouraged pupils to experiment. As a result, a fair proportion of school-leavers went straight into worthwhile jobs where they could apply what they had learned, instead of a social lifestyle at university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    Unfortunately, this situation is self-fulfilling. A girl who quite likes physics will see current classes dominated by boys and think “I don’t want that” and they choose a ‘safe’ option. We must start our encouragement that physics is fun (YES IT CAN BE) and open to all at an early age. I start with first years, but Primary schools and even children’s TV have a role to play.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    That graph in the story above isn't very helpful. Maybe I just need more coffee to make head-or tail of it :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Well, I have two daughters in school, and from where I sit state schools are an embarrassment to this country. Granted there will be exceptions in the UK, however when the teachers are unionised and writing to parents as to why they are striking your not going to achieve anything. HeadTeachers attitudes need to change because some of the the teaching staff are too scared to challenge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    So in a system where boys are lagging in almost all subjects, where staff is overwhelmingly female, where more girls than boys are consistently going to university and where the majority of those who leave before the age of 16 due to poverty, drug and alchohol abuse are male the BBC decides to focus on one of the few areas of education where boys excel and say it has to change???

    Mind boggling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    I'm not sure if this has changed very much. I took physics A level at an all girls' school in 1977. There were about 65 of us in the sixth form and around 40 who took physics as one of their A levels. Three were girls who had transferred from mixed schools because they had been told that physics wasn't really a girls' subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    298. "countless biologists, chemists, anthropologists, geologists, doctors, lawyers, officers, politicians and presidents though"

    Feely-nurturing type scientists and professional liars then, mostly?

    I guess it wouldn't help my argument if I said that spy thrillers and superhero movies aren't the sort that women actually watch, even if the stats bear that out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    "Sainsburys... put magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American in the "For Him" section. What chance do girls have if attitudes like this prevail"

    you feel if they put Scientific American in the 'for her' section, young ladies would be gulping down copies like they do copies of 'Hello'? Would the 'general interest' section be ok?

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.

    Sorry, but society plays SOME part in this"

    No society plays THE part - are you, as a physics teacher, discouraging girls from physics? Is your school? Kids will pick what they like and what theyre good at, some will pick with a view to degree or career. this article is IOP bias, its not sexism in play, its personal choice

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    The problem starts even younger - when choosing options fewer girls are taking seperate sciences, whilst not a prerequisite, a much better choice for science a levels. My daughter (an a* student) was being told if you do triple science you cannot do x,y or z and was warned the class would be mostly boys. Luckily other teachers are more enlightened, but the physics specilaist was quite off putting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    It appears to me that uninspiring teaching plays a large part.

    The real 'prejudice' is the way that most kids seem to treat all sciences as being hard and boring.

    There is not enough money in teaching to bring in decent science teachers! (except those who truly want to). There are too few scientists and too little money to be made in useful careers, hence they go to work in big business etc

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.


    Male 'dressmakers' get called 'tailors'. You could start with 'The Tailor of Panama', a thriller about a tailor who gets recruited as a spy.

    There are plenty of movies with female scientists. I don't think it matters here. For boys and girls it's more about whether you are at a school where you feel comfortable being in a class that sits beyond your assigned 'gender role'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    @ Pat Benatar

    Keep deluding yourself. Even the name "feminism" indicates it's intention (not "equalism" or "personism"). Essentially it's like modern capitalism - happy to accept the benefits, but quick to revert when things are not so pleasant. It's a concept every bit as repugnant as misogyny

  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    "I can't remember the last movie I saw that had a female physicist in it."
    Contact? Jodie Foster was good

    Hollywood is always embracing the Anti-Darwin propaganda

    Alien vs Predator was a good one with the only black female polar explorer in history

    That's entertainment folks, and as they always say:
    "Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental"

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    Is it because, as a rule, girls tend to be less interested in Physics? Let's be honest, it's the kids that choose their subjects for GCSE, if girls wanted to do Physics, they would choose to do so. NO ONE is stopping them. The system is perfect already. The kids spend 2 years doing all subjects and then get to choose their favourites for the last 3 years. Girls choose not to do Physics - end of

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    I can't help feeling that if this story had been the other way round, with more girls taking physics A-levels than boys, the story would have been reported as something positive, and would have jubilantly announced "Girls outperforming boys" as they do every year when exam results are due. Over the last twenty years education seems to have been feminised, resulting in boys losing interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    Sorry, but society plays SOME part in this. Girls (and many boys) come to school with a ready made view of physics as being difficult. I can be having a wonderful conversation with someone, but it will stop dead when they ask me what I do and I say that I teach …. physics.


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