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 422.

    Instead of having XFactor and telly programmes of that ilk why not have the 'X-Ray Factor' as a telly programme showcasing scientific knowledge & know how with prizes of contracts assisting in well-known scientific research projects eg: LHC at Cern??

    Okay, it was just a thought!

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.


    Science can tell us how to build a bomb, sociology can tell us why people detonate them. You may think only the former matters but I think the latter is pretty important too.

    You could argue that functioning cities are, in fact, large man-made machines with people the most important componant. Failure to understand human behaviour leads to poorly planned cities which one day implode.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    40. Wideboy - Quite a lot of bad advice there....

    I don't know anyone in my physics class who found it hard to get a job. About half went on to do a PhD, the rest are employed all over the place. Most are in finance, but also energy and law. The ones I keep in touch with all earn over £50K.

    And postdocs are supposed to be 1-2 years, so you have a chance to move about and gain experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    "questioning and understanding these interactions is every bit as valid as the study of 'hard' science"

    So, can you name any working technologies which rely on our understanding of sociology to operate and so act as a factual demonstrations of the validity of sociological theory?

    You are living in the kind of dream world that comes from having had little science education

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    Is it the Teachers' Union fault?
    This is the only "profession" where you're paid for the length of time in the job, rather than on performance. This dreadful incentive system discourages & hurts Innovative Teachers, Schools & Thinkers who focus on the end result, increasing the knowledge of the child. At least implement education vouchers & give parents a choice to avoid underperforming schools

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    So is sociology... is every bit as valid as the study of 'hard' science.

    I think the point he is making is that Physics put the rover on mars, has given us engines and computers as well as a massive understanding of how the world (not just us) works. Im not saying other subjects aren't important, some are just more important than others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    As a girl who studied a level physics I totally disagree that schools are failing their female pupils. Physics has nothing to do with gender jut whether you enjoy it and in my experience girls dont like it because many of the concepts can be related to male oriented things such as motors In fact my school did everything to support me especially with the masculine things if I didn't understand them

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    Seriously give it a rest.
    I was pretty much the only boy studying English in my class at degree level, and I never heard anything about English school teachers pandering to girls only. If anything there are increasingly more and more female teachers which means it is becoming harder and harder for boys to identify with their teachers.
    Girls are always looking to find sexism where it is nonexistant

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    When they can make physics more attractive than 'wannabe' shallow, materialistic (and mostly unacheiveable) lifestyles that bombard our children daily on the telly, in magazines and media then we might find attitudes towards physics as a subject change.

    But right now, far too many girls aspire to be more like Jordan rather than more like Prof. Brian Cox.

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    How do you make physics appealing to girls without falling into the trap of using gender stereotypes, which teachers would fall foul of, but which doesn't seem to care about. Although the website didn't work properly in my version of IE, I notice the homepage shows a link to an online shop where you can buy handbags. Bravo (sound of sarcastic hand clapping)

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    This rings true to me. I did a chemistry degree & regret that I didn't do physics A-Level. I now know that I would have much preferred a career in physics related research. My career's advisor suggested I should pick English as an A-level instead of physics. My English teacher encouraged me to do A-level, but my physics teacher never once spoke to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 411.

    How long are we going to tolerate Westminster stealing our tax money to fund a Govt monopoly on schooling that continually underperforms our children, forces private school fees up, & restricts parents' choices on what school they can send their child? How many more screw ups will we tolerate until we demand an end to Government socialised education funded by our hard earned incomes?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 410.

    against my judgement I really believe we need to start educating our boys and girls in separate classes Both have strengths and weakness In all subjects. Boys feels silly in learning poetry and girls feel undermined in science lessons. I am sure most school teachers feel the same. We could even have male teachers for boys & woman teachers for the girls

  • rate this

    Comment number 409.

    Headlines like this cause only one thing, rage on state school education ......again. Why is it that at the first sign of discrepency in educational statistics, the media automaticaly blame state schools for failing children. This cannot be seen to be a sole reason for girls not choosing to study physics at higher educational levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 408.

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

    Tell me about it, as an ethnic minority, i have no idea what i was thinking choosing maths and physics and becoming an engineer! I mean, where are my representative role models for a start? Maybe i should have done done sports?

  • rate this

    Comment number 407.

    I studied GCSE at a mixed comp school, went on to do ALevel physics at a mixed comp, and now have a physics degree. I chose my subjects based on what I enjoyed and what I was good at. Saying people don't choose physics because it's seen as unfeminine seems ridicolous. Maybe some research is needed into pass rates of science ALevels and GSCEs broken down by gender might provide a better answer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 406.

    166.RightWingIDBanned "If (girls) decide to take sociology instead then whose fault is that... Physics is the most fundamental insight into how the world and everything in it works".
    So is sociology. We all live in human societies and are subject to the influences of our peers; questioning and understanding these interactions is every bit as valid as the study of 'hard' science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 405.

    In my day boys had to choose between either technical or science subjects, you were not permitted to do both. My Mother was glad as she feared I'd blow the house up, instead I became an engineer...for sure it was not my fault that engine fell off the plane! lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 404.

    What is with all the quotas? Individual choice is what's important. Studied physics, maths and tech drawing at a mixed, state school in the late-80s and never noticed any negativity whatsover. On my Aeronautical Eng degree I was one of two girls out of an intake of 120 students on the course. A few old fashioned tutors prevailed but nothing extreme. More gets made of this than is true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    @ 391.The Realist
    "Can the claptrap institutes please stop making up such rubbish and tell the truth that the kids are problem, not the system..."

    I like your comment but arguably its not the kids fault when they are bombarded daily with 'wannabe' TV programmes, immoral Corporate adverts and media coverage of the likes of Jordan and Kerry Catonna as role models. Physics is not attractive.


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