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The right department for the new millennium

David Thompson examines how to halt the lack of entries for A-level physics

There is nothing like the approach of a new century, let alone a new millennium, for inspiring critical analysis and forward thinking. Undoubtedly, the decline in A-level physics entries in the past 10 years has been a cause of concern and even anxiety to all those interested in the future well-being of the subject.

If the opinion recently expressed by Alan Smithers in these pages regarding an increase in physics numbers attributable to birth-rate fluctuations becomes a reality, then there will be a huge sigh of relief in many sections of the physics community.

The problem of the lack of applicants for physics teacher training appears to defy this type of rationalisation. I agree with Smithers that the issue of losing touch with the subject is a very important one and may well be a contributory factor to the physics teacher supply problem.

I would like to take up Smithers's suggestion of experimenting with the training of physics teachers by basing the training in university physics departments (possibly as a fourth year of an MPhys) rather than via education departments with "poorly equipped laboratories staffed by one or two ex-teachers".

This suggestion is worthy of a more detailed analysis and a discussion of its advantages and disadvantages. There is clearly a presently omitted need for physics teachers to update their subject knowledge and this is important both because it can be a refreshing experience which renews enthusiasm and also because it enables the physics teacher to find contemporary contexts for teaching.

The merit of Smithers's suggestion, and the key issue so far as keeping in touch with the subject is concerned, lies in the availability of regular sabbaticals in the university physics departments throughout the physics teacher's career. However, this is an issue of continuing professional development - an issue for in-service rather than pre-service teachers. To date, it has been almost totally ignored, probably for reasons of finance.

Certainly, there have been a number of excellent - but ad hoc - initiatives in the past to support physics teachers in schools but, as far as I am aware, there has never been a planned and systematic entitlement for physics teachers to update their subject knowledge. Perhaps the Teacher Training Agency will take this on board as part of its consideration of continuing professional development?

Smithers's proposal does not seem relevant to pre-service teacher training. Entrants to the PGCE course usually do have a recent and up-to-date knowledge of physics. What they lack is a knowledge of the physics and physics teaching skills that are routinely required by schools and these are different from those required by university physics departments.

To give an example: over the years I have met many applicants for physics teacher training who are good graduates from well-thought-of university physics departments but who could not set up a ripple tank, or a Young's slits experiment. The worlds of school and university physics, although closely related, are separate. Indeed, in contrast to Smithers, one could argue that many university physics departments would need to re-equip for school physics.

Furthermore, I suspect that many university physicists would openly admit that they have a limited interest in physics education rather than physics research. Nor, I suspect, would some claim to be good role models for school teaching. The link between lecturing to a large class of undergraduates and teaching 30 adolescents in 9YB is tenuous, if not non-existent.

It seems clear that the way forward for training physics teachers in the new millennium is to retain it within the education departments who are better equipped than the university physics departments for the job of providing recent physics graduates with teaching skills.

I do agree with Smithers that there needs to be a planned and challenging programme of career-long subject development for in-service school physics teachers based in university physics departments.

David Thompson is senior lecturer in science education at the University of Huddersfield

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