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General election ask 3: Tackle the barriers in the education system

Too many young people are denied the rich and inspiring future that studying physics can offer because our struggling education system denies them the opportunity to pursue physics.

In particular, there is a significant and well-known problem with girls being underrepresented in physics – and the underrepresentation does not stop with girls.

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, disabled people, LGBT+ people, and those from minority ethnic groups – particularly those of Black Caribbean heritage – are all underrepresented.

This matters. Choosing to do physics gives young people the tools to understand their world and shape their future. It is therefore vital that more young people from more diverse backgrounds are supported and encouraged to do physics.

More young people aren’t pursuing physics because too many children hear negative messages at school about it, about themselves, and about who can do the subject. Hundreds of schools (and therefore tens of thousands of students) are without access to a specialist physics teacher, most often in disadvantaged areas.

To turn the tide and attract more young people from underrepresented backgrounds into physics, we must ensure all schools offer inclusive and equitable environments.

We’re therefore calling on the next government to make whole-school equity plans mandatory in all nurseries and schools – underpinned by a director-led implementation unit in the Department for Education and a minister responsible to drive these efforts – along with changes to teaching standards, teacher training and CPD, and school inspections.

An inclusive environment must be backed up by high-quality specialist physics teaching in all schools. Children who don’t have access to a specialist physics teacher are less likely to study physics and related subjects post-16, reflected in the fact that 70% of A-level physics students come from about 30% of schools – often in the wealthiest areas.

In 2022, physics teacher recruitment in England was at its lowest level against the government’s own target in over a decade.

And the number of physics teachers leaving the profession remains stubbornly high, especially in the first five years of a teacher’s career, where it is currently higher than any other subject. It is time to better recognise, promote and celebrate the value of teachers. We call on the next government to value physics teachers appropriately.

To have any chance of closing this teacher gap over the next 10 years, the next government must urgently invest in recruiting, retraining and retaining the next generation of specialist physics teachers, including addressing the root causes (such as high workload) for teachers leaving the profession.