Physics at GCSE is thriving and A-level entries keep going up

27 August 2014

Entries for physics at GCSE level have been resilient this year in the face of recent upheavals in science courses, while A-level physics entries have risen for the eighth consecutive year.

Rise in A-level physics students for eighth year running

Despite alarm in the press about students dropping GCSE physics as a single subject, much of the change is due to more students taking Further Additional Science which, in combination with Science and Additional Science, is a route to three certificates at GCSE as an alternative to physics, chemistry and biology.

There were 137,227 entries for physics GCSE this summer – down by 23,008 on last year – but 21,119 students took further additional science. To gain the new qualification, students have to take modules at a more advanced level than those for the existing science or additional science GCSEs.

The IOP’s head of education, Charles Tracy, said: “There is no cause for alarm. GCSEs have gone through an awful lot of upheaval but the outcome has amounted to almost ‘business as usual’. However, the existence of multiple routes through the sciences at 14-16 is not helpful. It is not a genuine choice for students whose futures can be determined by the interests of the school rather than their own needs or interests.”

Physics A-level entries rose to 36,701 this year – a 3.2% increase on 2013. Numbers have risen each year since 2006, when entries were at a low point of 27,368. If there were similar increases over the next three years, entries would be 50% up on their 2006 figure, which Tracy believes is not impossible. “There were 45,000 A-level physics entries in 1985 at a time when science was not compulsory up to age 16, so certainly the talent and the potential in the cohort is there, if students are given good teaching and the right opportunities,” he said.

“Our target is that everyone receives excellent teaching and the same opportunity to study physics in a way that will encourage them to take it further. An indication of that is how many people choose to take physics A-level. Physics is the eighth most popular subject at AS level and among boys it’s the second most popular so, at a national level, the picture is encouraging - and we no longer have a crisis. However, it’s not just about the total number. There are too many schools that send no students on to take physics at A-level and there seem to be systemic barriers for girls. For the nation, it’s an improving picture but access is patchy and too many students are still being denied their entitlement to the opportunities offered by physics.”

Entries for AS level physics have also increased, from 61,176 last year to 64,790 in 2014, which the IOP attributes partly to the work of the Institute’s government-funded Stimulating Physics Network (SPN). However, there are plans to return AS levels to being separate from A-levels, and the IOP will be monitoring these developments, Tracy said.

The IOP’s president, Frances Saunders, said: “SPN is helping to develop a cadre of secondary-school teachers who are more confident, effective and inspirational. Students’ experience of physics in school is a big factor in whether they choose to continue studying it post-16, and SPN is proving to be a major contributor to increasing numbers of A-level physics students.”

The proportion of girls among A-level physics entrants has increased slightly since last year, from 20.7% to 21.1%. But Saunders added: “We’re still concerned about the low numbers of girls taking physics, much of which can be attributed to gender stereotyping. They’re just as entitled to the opportunities opened up by a good education in physics as boys are, and we’re working to increase the number of girls choosing physics.”