Girls are being left behind

Oct 03, 2012
Girls are being left behind

Nearly half (49%) of all co-ed maintained schools in England do not send even one girl on to do physics A-level, a new report from the Institute of Physics (IOP) reveals today.

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

In the new IOP report, entitled "It's Different for ", out today, Wednesday 3 October, 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 of those choosing A-level physics who are girls has been stubbornly consistent, at around 20 percent, for more than 20 years – evidence from the database helps confirm the source of the problem.

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.

A further discrepancy, which supports previous research, is that the worst-served girls are those who attend co-ed schools that do not have a sixth form.

Clare Thomson, Curriculum and Diversity Manager at IOP, explains, "The importance of having a sixth form in your school for uptake of physics is related to the availability of specialist physics teachers – a factor we know contributes to enjoyment of and engagement with the subject across both sexes.

"Schools that have a sixth form are more likely to have specialist physics teachers on their staff and these teachers' confident and enthusiastic teaching of the subject inspires a greater number of students to progress on to A-level physics and beyond."

The findings support earlier research which suggests that girls are often turned off physics for three key reasons: their experience of physics at school, their teacher-student relationship and students' own developing sense of identity – how they see themselves in relation to the subject, which can be informed by a wide range of influences.   

Professor Knight writes in the new report's Foreword, "Perceptions of physics are formed well beyond the physics classroom: 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' perceptions 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."

IOP makes a series of recommendations to government and its agencies, head teachers and parents alongside the report, including a request to Ofsted that gender equity be part of the school inspectors' criteria.

IOP is currently working with the Department for Education on a major project, the Stimulating Physics Network, supporting schools to improve access for all students and as part of this IOP is trialing ways of making physics more attractive to girls.

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More information: See the full report and the IOP's recommendations for change here: www.iop.org/girlsinphysics

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