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State schools losing out as physics teacher shortage bites, says research

11 January 2024

Survey reveals more than half of UK and Irish state schools understaffed for physics teachers – far fewer private schools have the same problem.

State schools are far more likely than private schools to say they’re understaffed for physics teachers, according to The Science Teaching Survey 2023.

The survey reveals that more than half (52%) of teachers in mainstream secondary schools are working in schools understaffed in physics, with only a fifth (22%) of teachers in private schools experiencing the same issue.

In total, 46% of teachers said their school was understaffed for physics teachers – more than twice the proportion as for biology teachers. The problem is most acute in England with 50% of teachers reporting a shortage of physics teachers, followed by 46% in Wales and 40% in Northern Ireland. This disparity is reported to be less of a problem for schools in the Republic of Ireland (16%) and in Scotland (23%).

The survey of 2,932 teachers, heads of department and technicians, including 1,735 physics teachers, in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, highlights low morale in the physics teaching profession, with 30% of physics teachers saying they want to leave their school by 2025. Of those physics teachers wanting to leave their school, 17% said they wanted to leave the education sector entirely for a career change.

Physics teachers may also favour moving abroad. When asked to describe their preferred next step, a third of those who responded (34% of 47 responses) wanted to move abroad, usually to teach, compared with 23% of science teachers and technicians (73 responded).

The morale of teachers is a concern with the average satisfaction levels of physics teachers coming out at just 6.2 out of 10.

Confidence remains a problem for some physics teachers with more than a quarter of those who teach physics at KS5 (A-level) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland saying they lacked confidence in teaching the subject. This compares to just 13% of teachers lacking confidence in teaching chemistry at the same level.

Louis Barson, Director of Science, Innovation and Skills, Institute of Physics (IOP), said: “This simply isn’t good enough. This is not just an issue for teachers – it is unfair for young people, especially those in our state schools, who face a two-tier lottery of opportunity which reinforces inequalities.

“We must act now, and this is why the IOP is calling for a multi-pronged approach to tackle the issues across teacher recruitment, retention, and through supporting established teachers to retrain. The dire shortage of teachers, especially in physics, plus retention issues, coupled with the wider equity challenges pupils face, is a ticking timebomb and undermining young people’s futures.

“This survey also comes against the backdrop of recent Department for Education figures which showed it has missed its target by more than 75% for the number of trainee physics teachers recruited in England and calls from a House of Lords committee for radical changes to the curriculum. We need action to break this cycle and get back on track with recruiting, retaining and retraining our physics teachers, as well as making sure they have the support and resources they need to do their jobs and succeed.”

The Science Teaching Survey 2023 report is led by the Royal Society of Chemistry and supported by the IOP and the Royal Society of Biology.