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 362.

    Given the lack of physicists we have coming into the profession - male and female - this "problem" is rather academic (!). Let's stop engineering a gender balance (which is offensive to many) and focus on the problem of encouraging and nurturing home-grown talent (as well as the quality of Physics A-levels) before we get well and truly left behind in the world!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.

    Here at City of London School for Girls, an independent school located in the Barbican, we are proud that physics is one of our most popular subject choices at A-level and last year’s A-level leavers have gone on to study Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Mathematics and Medical Engineering at university after studying physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    348. "Don't believe the hype if you're thinking of studying science. You're more likely to get decent money & career progression in e.g. finance or management consultancy, than in science."

    Yeah, but how would you live with yourself?

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    The can find the Higgs-bosun, but they can't find women in physics.
    And look which one's bigger.

  • Comment number 358.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    point being gender disparities exist in life and a whole host of jobs not just A level choices. Physics isnt special and neither is it only women getting a raw deal.
    Today is women in physics but we never hear anything of the jobs where men die. Somehow its OK because theyre 'mens jobs', but if equality is to be applied then it should be applied equally

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    Girls should be encouraged to study physics too and there is clearly a failing of girls in this subject. Compared to many other areas of education, it is boys that are being failed by the education system. It is about time the gender equality debate in the western world looked at each situation instead of just focussing on the inequalities where females are the victims. The gender debate is sexist

  • Comment number 355.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    "Why are a greater proportion of girls in single-sex schools choosing Physics?"

    Indeed, but the take up rate is still significantly down compared to boys. If you look at the success rates for boys schools, it suggests that boys would do better at everything in a single-sex environment. Mixed education hurts boys more than girls, but girls problems are the only ones being highlighted

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    My daughter was one of two girls taking physics at A level after a term of taking the derogatory comments from her teacher about girls she changed to psychology. The other girl left the college.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    I studied Physics at Scottish Higher back in the '70s, teacher was amazed that I wanted to continue study, but treated me fairly. School careers on the other hand suggested that I go for a job as a bank teller or an admin role, despite having Highers in Physics, Maths, English and French. I ignored them of course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    yep... lets blame the teachers again... so sad!

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    Schools do not send may girls on to university? Could that possibly be because the girls themselves aren't picking physics as a choice when they have to make one as regards what they want to study? Students choose the subjects THEY want not what the government want them to do for political reasons. let them choose and go with it and stop the equality politics interfering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    So private mixed schools are doing better then? I find the headline a little misleading otherwise. As for physics i cant ever remember a time when it was considered not boring by most girls so it would seem schools mixed ones at least have been failing girls forever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    Go for it and help. We need you.

    ...But not that much....
    Don't believe the hype if you're thinking of studying science. You're more likely to get decent money & career progression in e.g. finance or management consultancy, than in science.
    Or leave the country and go to the USA where they actually value their academics and pay them 2 or 3 times what they'll make in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    If a subject is seen as hard work, girls do not do it, they take the easy option every time and then whine about not being paid enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    You missed the single most dirty and dangerous profession in the world from your list. I'll give you a clue, it's also the world's oldest profession, and most of the people working, getting sick and dying in it are women. You're right, stats are fun!

    As for male nurses - there is a stigma attached to men for being "only a nurse", it's seen as somehow demeaning when it shouldn't be

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    336. "What if... there is a fundamental difference between the genders in their interests and their perception of the world."

    There really isn't though. Cordelia Fine says so and pretty much all research agrees with her. The sexes are different in a few fundamental ways, but then we pile a huge weight of gendered identity on top of it that actually causes the brain to grow differently.

  • Comment number 344.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    I expect I'll get slagged-off by the PC brigade for this but frankly I don't care..

    For the most part, girls are NOT interested in physics. There I said it. Yes there are girls that do like it, do study it and do well at it, I am NOT saying that girls are inherently bad at it, but the vast majority of them have NO interest in the subject. Sorry if you disagree but this is a fact.


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