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 602.

    From the above:
    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.

    If ever there was a perfect case to scrap co-education, this must be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 601.

    I simply fail to understand why some teachers take the attitude that 'Physics is not suitable for girls' - as reported in many posts here. Any teacher - if he / she is worth their salt - will encourage a pupil of either sex to study any subject, if he/she is identified as having enthusiasm and a minimum level of ability. Obviously the teaching profession needs a good shake-up!

  • Comment number 600.

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

  • Comment number 599.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 598.

    I got my PhD in Physics just over 25 yrs ago and have worked in the field ever since. I am so depressed by this article, and some of the comments below. Women are still not treated equally and men remain patronising - thanks Morphius, for finding us to be 'generally excellent'. Seems little has changed in either education or work in the intervening years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 597.

    I had the good fortune of teaching "fire science" to fire service employees recently. Much of the science taught revolves around physics, and to be honest, the females in the class put in a much better performance than the males. Their note taking was far better organised, and the results spoke for themselves. It is these females who have given me a strong desire to go further into teaching.

  • rate this

    Comment number 596.

    Is this really newsworthy or are we simply pointing out that less girls take physics, and can you tell the difference? If this is simply to generate someone's idea of equality, then forget the story, but if there's an underlying perception that girls are being actively discouraged, then something needs to be done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 595.

    Jobs at the UKs synchrotron "diamond light source"

    Beam line Physicist, PhD 2-4 years postdoc research required, knowledge of C, Fortran, Matlab, expected to work shifts including night shift
    circa £28,000

    Job in same area for stagecoach bus driver £30,000 + overtime.

    Why bother going to University?

  • rate this

    Comment number 594.

    @552. Polly8122

    2 Hours ago


    I agree with your comment in reference to my own, we should not allow our kids to become economic units, but our kids are going to have to learn to compete with not only their own in country peer group, but people of the same age around the world, like it or not, yes let them have fun, but only when they have earned it.


  • rate this

    Comment number 593.

    Engineering in the UK is badly paid & low status. Therefore, there is a shortage of men willing to go into Engineering. The cheapest way to tackle the resultant skills shortage is to encourage women into Science/Engineering, as they will accept worse pay. This is exactly how I was duped into doing an Mechanical Engineering degree 20 yrs ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 592.

    Yet another media awareness campaign about the lack of females doing traditionally male jobs

    When has there ever been a bbc campaign about the lack of males in traditionally female jobs, it seems to me it is heavily weighted to the former, There was one about the fact there is virtually no male teachers in primary schools but it was never acted upon as several years later still the same ratio

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    Trevor Tentpeg
    33 Minutes ago

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

    - the truth sometimes hurts. There really is no need for the spineless jobs-for-life final-salary pension boys at the BBC to censor things from a British Citizen. Obviously were I to be an illegal immigrant my opinion would be published in full.

  • rate this

    Comment number 590.

    There is so much pressure on children both male and female to perform without articles such as this adding more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.


    Having a discussion is like playing chess; both players need to know and play by the rules.

    If a child runs in, kicks the pieces over and screams silly nonsense it's no longer a chess game. The child feels very clever - but it is just a child interrupting adults.

    The adults are just polite and say 'go to bed now little boy'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 588.

    It's a general trend in most Science/Engineering subjects and within the work place as well. In my company there are 20+ Engineers and none of them are Female. We have just taken on some Graduates to do rotations within the company heavily weighted on the engineering side, we also have a sandwich yr placement student each yr, all male (and I've been there 8 yrs).
    I agree with it being culture.

  • Comment number 587.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    Post 584 quotes 557. This happens a lot.

    Can we not have a choice of how many comments are visible on a page like Amazon and eBay? This would help broaden the discussion by keeping older posts relevant (visible).

    It's not a big deal on a quiet thread but would be a bonus when its a busy one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    School pupils don't get enough guidance on the relevance of specific subjects to future careers. It seems to be assumed that they know, or will be advised by parents (who probably don't know either). For example, if you want to be a doctor you may choose biology, but in practice physics and chemistry are equally important. Why is such advice lacking? Just teaching the subjed syllabus isn't enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    566. Nimrod

    557. Name Number 6

    Just out of interest, are you a physicist? Are you a member of the IOP? Are you familiar with their rules? I am. And whilst I'm male, I do understand and agree with TenpennyBit, there are many IOP rules that need tweaking in my opinion.
    I am a member of 2 Trade bodies and understand their rules can not be amended just to suit my individual needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    PC crowds may be too afraid to say that girls aren't as good as "X" the same way that boys aren't as good as carrying babies.
    I mean no offence but we have to accept that boys & girls are good at different things. Instead of pushing girls to do things they don't like, maybe we should focus on giving them proper credit for what they are good at rather than write them off as "girly".


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