Physics A-level entries back on the rise

17 August 2017

Entries to physics A-level are up this year amid an overall decline in the number of students taking A-levels.

A-level entries rise


Compared to 2016 the number of students taking physics rose by 3.5% to 36,578 – the highest number of entries since 2014 and the second highest since 1993.

Total A-level entries across all subjects declined by 1%. Physics entries as a proportion of total A-level entries rose from 4.2% last year to 4.4% this year. The total number of 18-year-olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales fell by 1.7%.

Within physics, entries from male students increased by 3.7% and those from female students by 2.6% compared to last year. Female students made up 21.5% of those taking physics, in line with previous years.

The proportion of physics entrants achieving an A* also increased, with 9.2% of candidates being awarded the top grade compared to 8.8% in 2016.

A higher proportion of girls received A–A* grades than boys, at 39.9% and 38%, respectively.

IOP head of education Charles Tracy said: “Studying physics at A-level is uniquely rewarding and imparts a many powerful ways of thinking (modelling, problem solving and fault finding) as well as a sound knowledge and understanding about the constituents of the material world and the way they behave .

“We’re very pleased to see young people choosing physics in increasing numbers, and that they are succeeding at it, with a higher proportion achieving the top grades.

“These qualifications will prove to be an excellent foundation for students’ next steps, setting them up for life.

“It is disappointing, though, that the number of girls taking physics remains low, and we’ll continue to work at improving the gender balance of our subject.”

The increase in entries has come at a time of change for A-levels, with many subjects being reformed with content changes aimed at better meeting the needs of higher education, less coursework in England and Wales, and practical endorsements for the sciences in England.

Tracy added: “Teachers have adapted quickly to the new courses and are doing an excellent job of preparing their students for their exams.”

The numbers of students taking physics A-level had drastically declined since the 1980s before a reversal in 2006, when they began to sharply rise, peaking at 36,700 students taking the subject in 2014.

In comparable subjects, A-level entries in biology went down by 1.2% this year, those in chemistry increased by 1%, while the combined figure for maths and further maths went up by 3.7%.

Although entries to physics are up across the parts of the UK that offer A-levels when taken as a whole, they nevertheless declined by 8.6% in Northern Ireland, while total A-level entries fell by 3.6%. This follows a trend that has seen overall numbers of A-level physics candidates in Northern Ireland plummet by 18% since 2013.

Dr Mark Lang, chair of the Institute of Physics in Ireland, said: “The situation regarding the decline in physics in Northern Ireland is shocking and requires substantial action at government level to address this, perhaps by way of the establishment of a taskforce to urgently implement the full recommendations from reports such as the 2009 Report of the STEM Review.”

Wales saw the highest increase of the three nations, with the number of physics entries up by 3.8% compared to 2016.

It’s a priority of the IOP to ensure access to high-quality physics education for every child, and many projects and programmes provide more students with the opportunities and desire to follow physics A-level - thereby improving their prospects and contributing to the national need.

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 Department for Education (DfE); empowering teachers of physics to give better, more engaging lessons by improving their subject knowledge and pedagogy, principally through the DfE-funded Stimulating Physics Network; and tackling the underrepresentation of girls in physics through carrying out research into its causes and pilot projects based on that research.

Much of this work has seen positive results. For example schools that have participated in the Stimulating Physics Network have seen an increase at more than double the national rate in the number of pupils studying physics beyond GCSE. Meanwhile, in schools taking part in an IOP pilot project funded by the Drayson Foundation, aimed at changing whole-school culture, the number of girls taking AS-level physics more than trebled over two years.