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IOP comments on A-level and Higher-level physics results published today across the UK

10 August 2021

The IOP welcomes encouraging rise in numbers of students studying physics across the UK, but warns that the figures mask hidden inequalities and biases facing diverse and disadvantaged young people.

A-level results were published today across England, Wales and Northern Ireland as were Scottish Higher-level results.

The number of students taking A-level physics across the UK was 40,741, the highest it has been since 1992, making physics the eighth most popular A-level subject. In Scotland there were 8,481 entries to Higher physics, up from 8,392 in 2020, with 42% of entries gaining an A grade. In Scotland too physics was the eighth most popular subject at Higher level.

It is encouraging to see that there was a significant increase in A-level physics entries across the UK. The total number of entries went up by more than 7% this year and is nearly 50% higher than it was in 2006. In Wales and Northern Ireland the numbers of students studying A-level physics increased by a fifth.

However this rise in the numbers of physics students at A-level and Highers masks hidden inequalities and biases – and IOP’s research shows that too many young people are being denied the opportunity to study physics because of the misconceived ideas about physics that they are told by people whose opinions they trust and because of the prejudice and stereotypes that they experience because of who they are.

They are told that physics is ‘not for the likes of them’, based on their gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or social background. This has to change, and the IOP’s Limit Less campaign is challenging the misconceptions and stereotypes and removing the barriers to young people studying physics after the age of 16.

We will help more young people to seize the opportunities physics offers for their future – and their world.

While the detailed data about the diversity of entrants to physics A-level is not available at this point, we know that in past years, in England, 70% of physics students have come from 30% of schools; with students in less-affluent areas being less likely to study physics.

There has also been a lower number of students from particular ethnic or geographic backgrounds, particularly students of Black Caribbean descent. Whilst there was a small increase in the proportion of female students, they still make up just 23% of those studying physics.

The IOP’s Director of Science, Innovation and Skills, Louis Barson, commented: “We congratulate students and teachers for their efforts in this hugely challenging year, and it’s encouraging to see the numbers of students studying physics rising. The increasing number of female students is particularly encouraging.

“But these figures mask deep inequalities and discrimination that mean students from diverse and disadvantaged backgrounds are being denied the future that studying physics can offer them.

“Studying physics provides young people with a way to understand the world and learn how to tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, including climate change, public health and poverty.

“It is also a gateway to a wide range of fulfilling and rewarding careers, both within physics itself and in other fields – and young people from all backgrounds must not be denied the opportunity to reach their potential and change the world by studying physics.”