Better teaching sends science A-levels to a new high

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

image captionExciting new findings may be attracting students to study physics

There has been a continued increase in the number of students taking A-level science and maths subjects - up on average by 3% on last year. Physics has been especially popular.

Last year when the A-level results showed a similar increase I suggested that an upsurge in interest in science subjects may be due to the fact that science has become cool again.

This may partly be due to the fact that research in many areas of physics is entering a thrilling new phase.

But what appears to be converting this growing fascination with science into more people taking A-levels are teacher support schemes that seem to be improving the teaching of maths and physics in state schools.

With the Large Hadron Collider set to double its power, and many new powerful ground and space telescopes due to come online in the next few years, physicists will have the tools they need to develop a more complete theory of how the universe works. Their research will once again reshape our understanding of the cosmos and our place within it.

It is possible that schoolchildren sense the dawn of an exciting new era in modern physics and want to be part of it. But all too often their love of science hits a brick wall during science lessons.

However, figures out today show that the total number of students entered for physics A-level has increased by 5%, from 32,860 in 2011 to 34,509 in 2012.

For mathematics, the story has been even more spectacular. Today's results show continued increases in both maths and further maths, taking the numbers to the best in the 20 years since records have been kept - a total of 98,947 A-levels awarded.

Since 2003, A-level maths numbers have increased by 69% and A-level further maths by 149%.

So how has this turnaround occurred?

There is evidence that two teacher support schemes funded by the Department for Education and run by the Institute of Physics and Mathematics in Education and Industry are beginning to make a big difference.

The IOP runs a network in England designed to help science teachers teach physics, called the Stimulating Physics Network. The MEI has a similar scheme called the Further Mathematics Support Programme. There is compelling evidence that much of the rise in the numbers of A-level students comes from schools participating in the scheme.

It is thought that physics and maths are badly taught in many schools because of a shortage of qualified physics teachers. Often they are taught to students by teachers who hold degrees in other scientific disciplines and who don't have the confidence to inspire their students.

It could take at least 15 years to recruit enough physics graduates to ensure there are enough of them teaching in every school. So one successful measure has been to work with existing teachers of other science subjects.

The Stimulating Physics Network works with science teachers who don't have physics degrees to show them how they can turn the excitement children have in the subject into A-level grades.

image captionMore students are studying A-level physics but only a small proportion are girls

Physics teachers participating in the scheme receive occasional tuition and support from an experienced physics teacher and have a week of physics summer school. Given the right professional support these teachers can improve the experience children have of physics.

The IOP's research also shows that the recent bulge in the numbers taking A-level physics is not being driven by private school students as many had thought. Instead the numbers are largely due to schools participating in the Stimulating Physics Network, which are all state schools.

Today's figures also show that the number of people taking AS-level physics has also increased - from 58,190 students entered in 2011 to 59,170 in 2012 - suggesting we will enjoy another positive set of results in 2013 if those students continue their studies for another year.

But one continued cause for concern is that although there has been an increase in girls studying A-level physics, the proportion compared with boys is still very low. Of the 34,509 entered for physics A-level, only 7,361 were female.

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