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 382.

    These are the values with which we instill our young people today. Women should be models and IT girls, or at least hairdressers and beauty therapists. Certainly not scientists.

    It doesn't help that the wife of the Prime Minister gave up her own career as a creative director so that she could stand by her powerful man like a good little wife.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    Given the comments about how underpaid Physics graduates are, even those with a PhD, could it be that girls are simply choosing subjects which give them better career options?

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    377. "You make the common mistake - helped by the media that everyone working in finance is a terrible person."

    Actually I just assumed that someone who wanted to study science would be motivated more by their interest in the subject than by the love of money, and that they'd probably regret turning away from it to pursue work that they could move into later in life anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    This is a very un-scientific article. You refer to the ratio of single-sex vs mixed physics students for girls but don't for boys.

    Generally speaking, single sex schools tend to be grammar schools full of clever kids. Clever kids tend to do Physics.

    Also as others have said, why are we not talking about the reverse gender imbalance in other subjects? Does sexism only count for girls?

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    Teenagers are often desperate to fit in, which makes a girl studying subjects like physics which some view as ‘unfeminine’ more of a social risk. The key age for this sort of self-consciousness is when they’re choosing subjects for GCSEs & A Levels. There is less stereotyping in girls’ schools; when there are only girls in class every subject is naturally a girls’ subject

  • Comment number 377.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    you'd need to do a survey of female HE leavers or graduates or those in work to ascertain if physics was something they definitely wanted to do but were discouraged then find out there is a failure, because right now its just an environment of free will and many choices for both sexes; girls dont choose physics and boys dont choose psychology. Is there really a conspiracy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    Given the lack of physicists we have coming into the profession - male and female - this "problem" is rather academic

    Lack? I find it quite the opposite. I graduated with my degree in physics over 2 years ago, most of my class went onto do their masters and then their phds, and yet there are hardly any of them in a job that even closely relates to their field of study

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    GCSE physics and (even worse) combined science lacks the modest numerical content that used to be covered at O-level.
    So the A-level has to whip through a lot of elementary energetics and dynamics. From a standing start, this is hardish, and also quite dull.
    That won't improve the subject for anyone, but it makes it even less likely to appeal to anyone contemplating a career outside academia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    Listen, SCHOOLS have failed my SON since he started! We have to pay for private tuition for 2 disciplines! It's all we can afford, I'd probaly need to pay for 3 more. Meanwhile the tinkerking of the system (Scotland) does not hold out much hope, a lot of teachers or not enough of them are consulted afore the tinkering starts....

  • Comment number 372.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    Excuse my temper. I really can't be bothered to write out yet again what I wrote. I actually twice wrote that girls should be encouraged to study physics etc. I also happened to comment on the girls school uniform (top pic) and how are they/the school? etc meant to be taken seriously. I guess I fell foul of the BBC mods on that one (twice)

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.


    People can get highly paid jobs without qualifications, Not just "pretty women". Honestly.., How do you get around with that massive chip on your shoulder?

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    The UK education system is flawed.It is based on a concept of a non-existent "average kid" all kids are individuals. Gender wise there tend to be differences. The old style O level exams favoured boys, all about memory recall and logic. The GCSEs favour girls more coursework (boys tend to be lazy) hence girl schools can tailor to reach girls more than co-ed. Subjects also favour different genders

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    Have a look at the Cambridge Assessment stats - pupils in single sex schools do more A levels than in mixed schools and the uptake of a lot of subjects is higher in single sex compared to mixed.
    Singling out physics is flawed - just look at Psychology uptake in boys schools compared to mixed

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    We have less number of engineers.. now scientists.. future UK will be left with only bankers.. and we all know what they do best.

  • Comment number 366.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.


    Actually, the earth rotates because the clouds of gas and dust that initially collapsed under the force of their own gravity to form the planet started to spin.

  • Comment number 364.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    How many times do we have to have the same debate!! All available evidence shows that Physics requires a high degree of spatial awareness, certainly at degree level. It is that boys are better at spacial awareness than girls. In the same way that girls are better than boys at emotional based subjects. 10% of girls have the same level of spacial awareness as boys. Get over it!!


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