Disadvantaged groups deterred from physics are focus of IOP workshop

20 November 2014

Young people in England from groups with the lowest socio-economic status (SES) are far less likely than their peers to study and succeed in physics at A-level or physical sciences at university, but secondary schools can make a crucial difference, an audience convened by the IOP was told.

RAP Case study Nov 2014

At a workshop in London on 20 November held to discuss raising aspirations in physics, attendees from the education sector, business, charities and learned societies were presented with stark data showing that while more than half of 18-19 year-olds in the highest SES group go to university, less than a fifth in the lowest SES group do so.

Presenting the figures, Institute for Fiscal Studies research fellow Claire Crawford showed that the pattern was similar for participation in the physical sciences at university and that those in the highest SES group are also more likely to go to a prestigious Russell Group institution. Those in the most advantaged group are also eight times more likely to take physics A-level than the least advantaged, and 20 times more likely to get an A grade or higher in physics A-level.

Researchers divided young people into five groups based on SES and used government data to follow pupils from age 11 through to potential degree completion. To determine SES, they combined information on free school meal eligibility at age 16 with measures of local area deprivation based on pupils’ postcodes.

However, the fact that students from lower SES groups tended to fare worse at Key Stage 4 went some way to explaining the inequality in outcomes. Also, those students from the worst-performing schools who had attained good results at Key Stages 4 and 5 were less likely to drop out of university and more likely to attain firsts or upper seconds than their peers from the best-performing schools.

The data showed that successful interventions in secondary schools could benefit pupils in low SES groups, Crawford said, and that pupils from the worst-performing schools who did well at GCSE and A-level could be regarded as having greater potential at university than their peers.

The workshop coincided with the publication in November of an IOP report and recommendations on raising aspirations in physics, a case study on a school in the north-east of England and a report on interventions in a multi-ethnic school in Southall, London to increase post-16 participation.

The IOP’s education adviser, Prof. Peter Main, said the three-year pilot study at the school in the north-east investigated the barriers to participation in physics for low SES groups and the effectiveness of interventions. He said that the factors affecting low SES groups included low “science capital” – the awareness of science and its importance within a family; parental understanding of the university system and routes through education; sibling and parental attitudes; availability of computers, books and suitable rooms for study; literacy and numeracy skills; self-confidence and social confidence; timetabling by schools; staff turnover; and setting, which could reinforce the message that children from low SES groups were less able.

Prof. Main described some of the measures undertaken in the pilot school, including meetings with parents, enrichment activities and continuing professional development for teachers. At the Southall school, parents had very high aspirations for their children but almost no understanding of how the university system worked, he said. Issues at both schools were deep and serious, he noted. “We will have to be really committed to effecting change and parents will be an important part of the solution,” he said.

At separate seminars, participants discussed practical ways forward in raising aspirations. Some key issues were identifying the incentives for schools and teachers to be involved, intervening early in pupils’ school careers, and engaging parents. Using the #raisingaspirations hashtag, the workshop provoked a lively discussion on Twitter.

The IOP’s publications include:

Raising Aspirations in Physics: Recommendations from a review of research

Raising Aspirations in Physics: A review of research

Raising Aspirations in Physics: A school case study

Opportunities from Physics: Interventions in a multi-ethnic school to increase post-16 participation

If you’d like further information, please email education@iop.org.

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