IOP report and summit tackle gender equity in the classroom

17 May 2018

IOP and the National Grid today brought together high-profile speakers and policymakers at a major summit to launch the Institute’s new report, Why Not Physics? – A Snapshot of Girls’ Uptake at A-level.

IOP report and summit tackle gender equity in the classroom

Girls perform just as well as boys in physics at GCSE, but the report released by IOP today shows that only 1.9% of girls choose A-level physics, compared to 6.5% of boys, while 44% of schools send no girls to A-level physics at all. And while there has been a small increase in the number of students taking A-level physics since the previous IOP report in 2012, the overall proportion of girls taking physics A-level has remained close to 20% for the past three decades.

The aim of today’s summit was to stimulate a major debate and produce a series of recommendations on what needs to be done to close the gender gap in the take-up of physics A-level.

The summit kicked off with a roundtable discussion led by IOP President Professor Dame Julia Higgins, involving industry and education experts and policymakers, to examine why the proportion of girls taking A-level physics has not increased beyond 20%. The group reflected on the serious impact of this gender gap on industry, R&D, the economy and society – and what must now be done to grow the take-up of physics at A-level and to drive gender equity in science and technology more generally. The discussion is particularly timely given the skills need outlined in the UK Government’s new Industrial Strategy.

A public session followed, with speakers including our Chief Executive Professor Paul Hardaker, author Angela Saini, science communicator and TV presenter Fran Scott and engineer Dr Courtney Thornberry of National Grid plc, sponsors of the report. They addressed an audience from academia and industry, as well as students, the media and those involved in education research, teacher training and policy-making in schools.

An open discussion and Q&A concluded the session, moderated by Chair Valerie Jamieson of the New Scientist.

Professor Higgins said: As our report makes clear, gender stereotypes are pervasive in our culture, to the detriment of a whole generation of scientists, technicians, engineers, mathematicians and programmers whose talents lie undiscovered because of their experiences at school.

“There is no evidence to suggest any intrinsic differences in ability or interest to explain why girls and boys choose technical subjects differently. The consequence of girls’ choices at school is that many rewarding and fulfilling routes are closed off to them. Previous interventions have focused on either physics, the physics classroom or on the girls themselves. But now, something different is needed, to address the whole school environment and how it influences choices.

“I’m delighted that as a trusted voice in the science community, IOP has been at the centre of an imaginative debate on how we can tackle barriers to equality. It’s our role to make sure that every girl not only has a chance to pursue physics but that they feel they can pursue physics.”

Nicola Shaw CBE, Executive Director of National Grid UK, added:  “For the UK to retain its prominent reputation in innovation, invention and engineering excellence there is an urgent need to address the STEM gap.  Industry already faces a serious recruitment shortfall that will only get worse if we fail to encourage more women into STEM careers – there is so much opportunity with these skills, which can provide really exciting careers that meet women’s needs whilst helping to grow our economy.”

IOP report and summit tackle gender equity in the classroom

Why Not Physics? – A Snapshot of Girls’ Uptake at A-Level, reveals small improvements in the numbers of students who took physics A-level in 2016 compared with the number who took it in 2011. Slightly fewer schools send no girls to A-level, and a slightly larger proportion of girls overall take A-level physics (1.6% in 2011 to 1.9% in 2016). But the overall proportion of girls taking physics A-level has remained stubbornly close to 20% for the last three decades.

Among the key findings were that girls perform just as well as boys in physics at GCSE. However, in 2016, only 1.9% of girls chose A-level physics, compared to 6.5% of boys. This is 5,669 girls compared to 21,032 boys.

In maths, biology and chemistry, the differences between boys and girls are smaller: 9.5% of girls and 5.6% of boys progress to biology, 5.6% of girls and 6% of boys to chemistry and 8% of girls and 12.3% of boys to maths.

In total, 68% of all schools with girls send fewer than two girls to A-level physics and 44% of schools send no girls at all. By comparison, only 28% of all schools with boys send fewer than two boys to A-level physics.

The likelihood that a girl will progress to A-level physics is still affected by the type of school she attends: 4.2 times more boys progress to A-level than girls in co-educational schools. In single-sex independent schools, 2.4 times more boys progress to A-level than girls and 7.5% of girls in single-sex independent schools progress to A-level physics.

All students are more likely to progress to A-level physics having studied triple science at GCSE rather than the core route: 6% of girls and 20% of boys who have studied triple science progress to A-level, compared to 1% of girls and 3% of boys who studied core and additional science. However, there is no apparent gender difference between routes taken at GCSE.

While 65% of girls have physics in their top four grades at GCSE, of these students, only 8% progress to physics A-level. When chemistry and biology were in a girl’s top four GCSE subjects, 25% and 32% progressed to the respective A-level. Nearly twice the proportion of girls progress to A-level biology when it was not in their top four results than physics when it was in their top four.

The report goes on to make recommendations to schools, such as including gender equity in the Ofsted inspection criteria, providing careers guidance that challenges stereotyping and routinely reporting on the numbers of students progressing to physics A-level. The report also examines the merit of IOP’s proposed Gender Equity Mark for schools.

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