As a physics teacher, I couldn’t ignore the absence of girls in my A-level classes. There was often just one.
This is not unusual. Nationally, 2 per cent of girls commence A-level physics, of which only 57 per cent attempt the final exams.
I decided to see if there was anything I could do about it.
So I explored this phenomenon through research, starting by searching the academic literature.
The IOP reports that fewer girls choose physics in co-educational schools, and that biology or chemistry can be a preference even if the child has lower GCSE outcomes in those subjects.
I surveyed and interviewed students about physics lessons, the curriculum and science in society. Unlike boys, girls disliked some of the GCSE specification (electricity production, nuclear power, and atoms and molecules). Because of this and a growing mistrust of science in the media, girls’ enjoyment of physics declined with time.
I also became aware that the "high ability" science classes in key stage 3 had a male majority and that girls were worried about the triple-science selection process.
Lack of role models
The girls described some barriers to physics at A level: specific exam pressures, mathematical demands and perceived lack of obvious usefulness. They recognised the importance of their family, gender role stereotypes and teachers, feeling they lacked role models. To improve things, they suggested that physics careers advice be “forced” upon girls.
What did I do with all this? I recommended the following to senior management:
Check gender distribution when setting in KS3
Fund careers-related professional development
Create community science outreach links
Allocate physics lesson time to teach mathematics
Appoint a head of physics to outline whole school physics vertically
Did it have an impact? It was pleasing to see numbers rise to four in the following year. But I can’t claim that all of the above should be implemented at your school, too.
You see, year groups are not identical, and the act of taking an interest could have raised the girls’ awareness to physics as being an option.
Context is key. I knew our students and understood our whole school priorities. While not advocating that every physics teacher pursues further academic study, it is only through identifying the barriers to uptake at your school that you can begin to reduce them.
Emma Mitchell is head of higher education at Whitgift School and is studying for an EdD at UCL’s Institute of Education. She tweets @emmaphysics