Boys still outnumber girls in A-level physics
Experts have suggested that gender biases in society and schools, as well as a lack of teachers, may be having an impact on take up.
Boys are still almost four times as likely to study physics A-level than girls sparking fresh warnings that gender bias, and a lack of good teachers, is turning girls off the subject.
Figures show the number of girls entered for A-level physics has risen by just over a quarter over the last 10 years, according to a Press Association analysis.
But in the same period, boys’ entries soared by more than a third.
There has been a major push by government and industry in recent years to get more students, particularly girls to take the subject.
Experts suggested that unconscious cultural biases, such as the idea that boys and girls are good at different things, are often reflected in schools, and this can have an impact on subject choices.
The Press Association’s analysis of A-level exam entries in the UK found that only 7,846 teenage girls were entered for A-level physics last year, around 1,700 (28%) more than 10 years ago.
In comparison, boys’ entries rose by 7,375, from 21,357 in 2017 to 28,732 last year.
There are growing indications the gender gap in physics is not solely an issue with the science, but a symptom of wider issues within society and schools, it is suggested.
Research conducted by the Institute of Physics (IoP) in 2011 and 2013 began to indicate that there are gender gaps in many subjects.
It’s not just a physics issue, it’s a school issue, where we are navigating girls and boys differently through their education Charles Tracy, IoP
Charles Tracy, IoP head of education, said: “What the actual issue is across all subjects there is gendering that’s most extreme with computing at one end and performing arts at other end.
“So it’s not just a physics issue, it’s a school issue, where we are navigating girls and boys differently through their education and one of the results of that is that more boys than girls – four times more boys than girls – take physics.”
He added he believes there is “unconscious bias in general” and it is not the fault of schools.
“This is in society and in teaching, in schools, that there will be conditioning of girls and boys that is very different through their whole education and then the subjects they are presented with, and indeed the way they are presented with them, they will make choices along gender grounds,” Mr Tracy said.
Professor Dame Julia Higgins, IoP president and fellow of the Royal Society, said schools “need to have a culture where it doesn’t inadvertently signal that girls don’t do physics and boys don’t do French”.
She also suggested a lack of physics teachers can play a part in the low take-up of the A-level by girls.
Figures indicate more teachers are needed in the subject, and nearly two in five (38%) of those teaching the subject in England do not have a relevant post A-level qualification.
“It is of course the fact that if you’re studying English or history, you can do a lot of things on your own,” Professor Higgins said.
“The outside world helps you with your subject.
“Science, it isn’t easy. So, if you’re struggling, or struggling to understand the teacher etc, then you can’t be so self-sufficient. And I think it’s fairly well-noted in research that girls are more sensitive to the quality of the teaching than boys often are. Boys will choose a science subject because boys choose science subjects. It’s not a question for them.”
She also said: “In a sense I suppose it is easier to be enthusiastic about Jane Austen or kings and battles in history than it is about the laws of thermodynamics. But they are interesting when you see the consequences, when you see the effect of them and you discover what sorts of things happen. But it needs somebody with that enthusiasm.
“It comes back to my point that there aren’t enough physics teachers. It’s vicious circle because there aren’t enough young people going to university to study physics, as physics specialists, and plenty of careers for those people, so they don’t go into teaching, and that feeds back into there not being enough teachers in the schools.”
In many schools, whether it’s a single-sex or a co-ed school, physics lessons are not taught perhaps as well as they could be and are not as interesting and as relevant to girls as they could be Julie Keller, headteacher
Julie Keller, head of Nottingham Girls’ High School, part of the Girls’ Day School Trust said changes to the exams system which mean students are now more likely to take three A-levels instead of four may play a part in physics take-up among girls.
She added: “Then you’ve got the two major reasons which I think are the gender bias, the stereotyping, the idea that girls, this subtle message that girls just don’t do physics, and then you’ve got the other point which is that in many schools, whether it’s a single-sex or a co-ed school, physics lessons are not taught perhaps as well as they could be and are not as interesting and as relevant to girls as they could be.
“From us, as an all-girls school point of view, if I’m honest we have it easy in that we don’t have the gender bias and the stereotype. My girls don’t ever think that physics is a subject that’s not for them.”
There has been a rise in pupils opting for A-level physics at her schools, Miss Keller said, with over 20% of those starting the sixth-form in the autumn due to study the subject.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said there has been a rise in science and maths A-level entries since 2010.
She added: “We’re taking a range of steps to encourage more pupils to study these subjects including an investment of more than £2million a year in the stimulating physics network, which includes a programme specifically designed to increase the number of girls taking A-level physics.”