Physics A-level numbers and proportion of female entries in physics go up in 2018

16 August 2018

The IOP is pleased to see that entries to physics A-level rose again this year, despite an overall decline in the number of students taking A-levels.

Physics A-level numbers and proportion of female entries in physics go up in 2018

Compared to 2017, the total number of students taking physics A-level in the UK rose by 3.4% to 37,806 entries.

The number of A-level entries continues to decline across all subjects, with a drop of 2% on 2017. But physics entries made up 4.7% of total entries in the UK, up from 4.4% last year.

Within physics, female students made up 22.2% of entrants – up from 21.5% in 2017. This is the highest proportion of female physics entrants since 2009. Female students who took A-level physics slightly outperformed males, with 30% of females achieving an A* or A grade compared to 29.5% of males, while 71.5% of females achieved a C or above compared to 69.6% of males.

England saw an 8.4% rise in the number of female physics entries, with 599 more girls taking the subject than in 2017 and 690 more males entered the subject than in 2017. In Wales, entries to physics dropped by 2.8%, although the share of total entries remained stable at 4.7%. Northern Ireland saw a drop in entries in physics of 3.9%, but the share of total entries increased from 4.2% to 4.3%.

Entries to physics in the UK rose by a higher proportion than biology and maths, and by the same proportion as chemistry.

IOP Head of Education Charles Tracy said: “We at the IOP have been working hard on increasing participation by girls. With support from the Department for Education (DfE), we have been running projects in schools, where we work with the whole school, its science teachers and groups of girls.

“While there is still work to do, an increase of 8.4% in the number of girls studying physics in England indicates genuine improvements in removing barriers.”

Yesterday, Ireland’s State Examinations Commission issued its results for the 2018 Leaving Certificate, and the data shows that the number of Irish students taking physics is broadly similar to last year – 7585 students took the subject in 2018 compared to 7535 in 2017.

Chair of IOP Ireland Professor David Riley congratulated students receiving their results. He said: “Physics has a critical role to play in Ireland, but to sustain the pipeline of physics graduates we urgently need to increase the number of physics teachers in the country. Last year only 41 new physics teachers registered with the Teaching Council – a huge imbalance in the numbers qualified in physics compared to other sciences, with physics teachers making up just 17% of the cohort of science teachers.”

The number of registered physics teachers in Ireland is 1259, compared to 2376 chemistry teachers and 3878 biology teachers.

Professor Riley has called on the Irish Minister for Education to urgently review the situation and implement IOP proposals to address the crisis, noting that in England a similar situation is being tackled with some success. Physics teacher recruitment had hovered at around 400 each year from 1970, reaching an all-time low of 200 in 2001, while entries for physics A-level had declined by 40% over 20 years to 2006. However, following significant Government intervention in partnership with the IOP, both trends have now reversed in England, with physics teacher recruitment figures reaching an all-time high of 920 in 2012 and an average annual recruitment over the last five years of 750.

Commenting on the gender of physics entrants in Ireland, IOP Ireland Policy Adviser Dr Sheila Gilheany, said: The uptake of physics by girls in Ireland remains stubbornly low at school level, with only about a quarter of the Leaving Certificate numbers being female. This imbalance continues through all levels of study and into the wider workplace.”

In 2014, the IOP introduced the Improving Gender Balance project, which involved working closely with six schools in London with the aim of encouraging more girls to choose A-level physics. Between 2013 and 2015 the number of girls taking physics in the six schools increased from 12 to 52 girls, raising the representation of females in these classrooms from 10% to 27%.

The project has now been extended to Ireland, with Science Foundation Ireland funding a pilot with seven schools through the Centre for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning at Dublin City University, led by Dr Eilish McLoughlin.

Many IOP projects contribute to our goal of increasing the proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds studying physics and within that group, increasing the proportion of girls.

This includes tackling the ongoing shortage of physics teachers and working to increase recruitment and retention via initiatives such as Teacher Training Scholarships, funded by the DfE; offering support and training for school physics departments with our Future Physics Leaders project; empowering teachers of physics to give better, more engaging lessons, principally through the DfE-funded Stimulating Physics Network; and tackling the underrepresentation of girls in physics.

Much of this work has seen positive results: schools that have participated in the Stimulating Physics Network have seen an increase at more than double the national rate in the number of students studying physics beyond GCSE.

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