Why do things keep getting better for physics?

16 August 2012

- A-level entrant increase for sixth year running

- Figures indicate Stimulating Physics Network is major cause

- The increase is being driven by the state sector – it is not coming solely from private schools

A-Level physics students

For the sixth consecutive year, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) has announced an increase in the number of students choosing to sit examinations in physics.


The total number of students entered for physics A-level has increased by 5% from 32,860 in 2011 to 34,509 in 2012 and physics is now the 9th most popular subject.


Pleasingly, the number of girls went up by 7%, above the national average of 5%.


Last year, many accredited the success to cultural influences, such as the “Brian Cox effect”. New data, however, suggest a network designed to help science teachers inspire students with the wonder of physics, called the Stimulating Physics Network (SPN), has played a major part in translating this nascent inspiration into A-level entries.


The rise in the number of students choosing to take physics at A-level in ‘SPN Partner Schools’ – schools that have worked closely with physics education specialists through SPN – correlates strongly with the overall increase in the number of examination entrants at AS level.


A survey of the 276 Partner Schools (which comprises just under a tenth of all state schools in England) indicates that there has been a 30% increase in uptake of AS level physics over the past year in these schools.


This is in contrast to a 1.7% increase across all schools and suggests that this year’s increase of 982 students sitting AS in 2012 is largely made up of students from the Partner Schools.


The long-term impact of the project is even more striking as Partner Schools who have been working with the Network for two to three years report an average increase of 70% in the number of boys and 200% in the number of girls going on to take physics A-level.


Charles Tracy, Head of Education pre-19 at the Institute of Physics (IOP), said, “We’ve been waiting to receive the data before making any claims about the success of the Stimulating Physics Network.  Now, however, we are in no doubt about how great a success it is proving to be.  We’ve found a formula that works and we’re very proud of it.”


The government-funded SPN, run by IOP in partnership with the National Network of Science Learning Centres, differentiates itself from a wide range of science education projects by being one that takes place in-school and is bespoke to meet the specific needs of non-specialist physics teachers and their school departments.


Due to a national shortage of specialist physics teachers, many of those teaching physics in schools hold degrees in other scientific disciplines and often lack the confidence to inspire their students; SPN seeks to work with these non-specialist teachers in state schools across England to ensure they are able to inspire the next generation of physicists.


Charles continues, “Last year it was suggested that the increase in the number of A-levels being taken in physics was driven by private schools.  The JCQ figures – backed up by data from our SPN Partner Schools which are all state schools – suggest quite the opposite; a very refreshing state of affairs.” 


The JCQ figures revealed that the number of AS-level entrants to physics examinations increased from 58,190 students entered in 2011 to 59,172 in 2012.


Despite marginal improvements, the problem of the gender divide in physics still persists.  Of the 34,509 entered for physics A-level, only 7,361 were female.


Charles continued, “We have enjoyed six years of success but there is still more than a decade of hard work ahead of us.  Not only does the shortage of specialists persist, resulting in diminished physics education opportunities for swathes of students across England, many very able potential female physicists are being denied opportunities because of discouraging stereotypes and anachronistic assumptions about physics.


“We will continue to work at the problem until every student has access to the high quality experience of physics to which they are entitled.”


JCQ Results Table for Physics

A Level201020112012% change from 2011
Girl/Boy ratio21.5%/78.5%20.8%/79.2%21.3%/78.7% 

AS Level201020112012% change from 2011
Girl/Boy ratio23.7%/76.3%23.3%/77.7%23.4%/76.6% 

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