Irresistible decline of physics

Bleak future looms for British science as string of initiatives fails to stem plunge in number doing A-level, reports Graeme Paton

The number of pupils taking A-level physics has halved over the past two decades as government initiatives to halt its decline failed, an independent report released today says.

The fall has led to a drop in university physics entrants and prompted a huge shortage of specialist teachers, according to the study by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson, from Buckingham university.

Warnings over the decline of physics come as the Confederation of British Industry prepares to raise fresh concerns next week over the state of science in the nation's schools and universities.

The CBI is expected to release a study, ahead of A-level results on Thursday, showing that hundreds of young people are being turned off science while those who persevere with the subjects start work with patchy or inadequate skills.

In a report today, Professor Smithers says the problems are being exacerbated by lessons led by ill-qualified teachers. "Physics is in the grip of a long-term downward spiral," he said.

Today's report says that A-level physics entries fell 49.5 per cent between 1982 and 2005, from 55,728 to 28,119. Meanwhile, the proportion of 16-year-olds studying A-level physics fell from 6 per cent in 1990 to 3.8 per cent in 2004.

The study, funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, reveals that the proportion of A-level entries from girls fell at the same rate as those from boys, with entries from girls typically making up a quarter of the total over the past two decades.

Girls are also less likely to take the subject at university. The research shows that just 18.5 per cent of entrants to physics courses were girls, compared with 40.5 per cent on chemistry courses and 58.5 per cent in biology. The study also says that the drop in A-level students was sharpest at FE colleges and smaller at private and grammar schools, where there are more specialist teachers.

It says many grammar and private schools offer pupils GCSE physics. But 40 per cent of feeder schools to FE colleges have no teachers who studied the subject at university, meaning physics gets "lost in general science".

A spokeswoman for the Royal Society said: "It is crucial that we get more specialist physics teachers if we are to inspire more young people to study physics at A-level and beyond. The Government should consider a national strategy to ensure none of our secondaries is without a specialist teacher in each of the sciences."

The study is the second of three reports by Professor Smithers and Dr Robinson about the decline of physics. The first, last year, showed that almost a quarter of 11-16 schools do not have teachers who studied physics at university and only 38 per cent of those who teach the subject are specialists.


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