Girls are being left behind in physics

Posted on 3 Oct 2012

Nearly half of all co-education schools in England don't have any girls taking physics A-level.

Using records of A-level examinations sat in 2011 from the National Pupil Database, the Institute of Physics (IOP) reports a startling picture of the uneven education landscape that denies swathes of female students an engaging physics experience.

In the new IOP report called It’s Different for Girls out today, the failure of many schools to ensure equal opportunity for boys and girls is laid bare.

Professor Sir Peter Knight, president of IOP, said, “Physics is a subject that opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities.  This research shows that half of England’s co-ed comprehensives are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls.”

Although this is not a new problem – the proportion girls who are choosing A-level physics has been stubbornly consistent at around 20% for over 20 years.

Lynn Tomkins, UK operations director of engineering and manufacturing Sector Skills Council Semta, says that more needs to be done to encourage girls to study physics – a subject that can lead to a career in advanced engineering and manufacturing.

With Semta predicting that 82,000 scientists, engineers and technologists need to be recruited in industry by 2016, Ms Tomkins says that “Women are a valuable and untapped resource for industry.”

There is a revealing discrepancy between co-ed and single sex schools with girls being almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do physics A-level in an all-girls’ school.

Clare Thomson, curriculum and diversity manager at IOP, explained that there needs to be more specialist physics teachers to encourage uptake of the subject.

The findings support earlier research which suggests that girls are often turned off physics for three key reasons:

1. Their experience of physics at school

2. Their teacher-student relationship

3. Students’ developing sense of identity and how they see themselves in relation to the subject

Professor Knight argues that “perceptions of physics are formed well beyond the physics classroom, with the English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics or the lack of female physicists on television playing a part in forming girls’ perceptions of the subject.”

IOP has requested to Ofsted that gender equity be part of the school inspectors’ criteria, something that would support skills growth in the UK’svaluable advanced manufacturing sector, where only 21% of the workforce is female compared to 48% for all sectors in the UK.

Over a working lifetime, the average physics graduate earns about £100,000 more than graduates of non-science subjects – a strong incentive for girls or boys.

See the full report and the IOP’s recommendations for change here: