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 402.

    I studied physics at Oxford, and then went on to do a PhD. There were always more boys than girls, but that didn't bother me as I didn't really want to fit in with the people at my school anyway. State schools in the 1980s were truly dire! My daughters now go to a private girls school where I hope they will be happy and able to choose whatever they enjoy without feeling they don't fit in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    So, somebody makes a free choice and therefore their school has failed?

    Why not respect their choices?

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    I agree, why is there no comment that less boys than girls are studying Biology There are always stories about the lack of women in traditionally male roles but never visa versa. There are differences between boys and girls and as long as there aren't barriers to girls wanting to study physics (which from my experience there aren't) then does it matter that most chose not to?

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    Seriously, does it matter whether people who staudy physics are male or female????? Maybe, perhaps, girls just dont like physics, has anyone thought of that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    Can we have the breakdown of races for the three subjects indicated as well please.

    I suspect there may be more mileage in this non-story to be had.

    I believe more than half those starting training as doctors now are female, which presumably means they study "doctor" subjects at A level rather than physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    It's not that girls can't study physics; it's that girls don't want to study physics because that's just part of the culture, specifically relating to gender roles and which ones females are encouraged to pursue.

    This whole article is just a phony issue. It makes me wonder about the hidden political agenda that underlies it. What aren't you telling us, BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    It seems to me that this problem can be traced back to earliest childhood. Boys play with star wars action figures and girls play with barbie dolls.

    Who do we think will form an interest in physics?

  • Comment number 395.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    I think you'll find that lots of girls become doctors and dentists and so do A level chemistry and biology.......ooooh look, boys are lagging behind in Biology by 45 to 55 in the above graphic.
    I just think the sisterhood have chosen today to make a noise. Harriet WILL be pleased!

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    Time and time again we see these reports. Sometimes it just comes down to the fact that girls and boys find different things stimulating. As many have pointed out English, psychology, sociology are female dominated. Once you get to the real world you find plenty of female scientists, but usual from another country. Blaming the schools is simply lazy, The real issues in the UK lie much deeper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    What we need are feminine female role models. Check out the Cosmologist Laura Mersini-Houghton who developed her 'Theory of the Origin of the Universe' with 4 observed predictions. See BBC Horizon 'What Happened before the Big Bang?' and Morgan Freeman's 'The Edge of the Universe' (Emmy nominated), and last week's NPR interview:

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    Schools are not failing girls in physics, it is girls failing in physics. They have to try harder, simple as that.

    Can the claptrap institutes please stop making up such rubbish and tell the truth that the kids are problem, not the system. They are more interested in X-Factor, just come out and say it instead of getting hard working teachers in trouble yet again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    Males are consistenly under represented in areas such as pyschology and sociology. Does the BBC ever investigate and champion equality there? No, of course not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    My son has just started as a Physics teacher at a Girl's school. Many schools now don't do A levels especially Physics and at GCSE its done as a combined subject so he teaches Biology and Chemistry as well. He needs to teach Physics at A level in the next couple of years or he will have wasted some of his training. Policy versus actual provision!

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    Physics was my best subject at O'level, I had a great teacher who really brought it to life. I went on to do Physics, Chemistry and Maths at A'level where I had a different teacher with a totally different approach and I really struggled with it. I went on to Uni and studied Civil Engineering where I was one of only 2 girls in a year of 60 students. Teachers attitudes make a huge difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    motivated more by their interest in the subject ...

    Science jobs are thin on the ground and not very well paid. Jobs in finance etc are more plentiful, better paid and also utilise analytical skills. Many graduates end up here because they simply can't find science jobs, then realise that business can be interesting too...
    They also have student debt to pay off...

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    I groaned when I read that the Dept of Education is thinking of advising the government to bring in targets on this issue.That dreaded word!
    Targets in the police force and in the NHS have solved nothing.Why do they persist in thinking that this is ever the solution to anything?

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    No, education itself fails all our children because education these days is high-presure grooming of our children to become Corporate fodder.

    The minority will succeed into powerful, high-paid jobs (some of this will be nepatism and 'old boy network') but for most a life of down-trodden servitude awaits them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    This is so tedious. If female students want to study physics, they will do. If they are good enough to succeed, they will do. Taking something with a superficial imbalance and coming back with 'discrimination' is like taking something with paint on it and coming back with 'art'. There are many, many reasons for an imbalance. Discrimination is literally the least prevalent of these causes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    Another Govt monopoly that is underperforming, providing an awful service to it's 'customers'.

    If private schools did this they'd loose their students & go out of business. Govt can never hope to out perform free people, voluntarily entering into contract for goods or service in an efficient Free-Market place. We need to abolish the failed Department of Education & replace it with nothing.


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