Call to woo physicists with targeted courses

17th June 2011 at 01:00
Government recruitment ambitions won't be realised without new approach, warn experts

Bold new teacher training courses specifically designed to tempt physics graduates into teaching are needed if challenging targets for the number of specialists in schools are to be met, a science-promotion charity has said.

Radical changes must be made to address the shortage of physics teachers in England, which currently totals around 4,000, according to the Institute of Physics (IOP).

Making matters even more precarious, ministers have almost doubled the number of physics graduates they want to enter teaching. And, for the first time, universities have to meet specific targets for chemistry, physics and biology, rather than just for "science".

The IOP has warned that these targets will not be met because of the low number of physics graduates, and because many are put off entering the profession due to reluctance to teach other science subjects.

The organisation is campaigning for the Department for Education and the Training Development Agency to establish a new PGCE which would allow specialisation in physics and maths, but not chemistry and biology.

It would also mean that maths and engineering graduates could take a PGCE course that would qualify them in physics as well as maths.

The DfE hopes universities will recruit 925 physicists to start courses this September, up from 518 last year. But only around 2,000 physicists graduate in England annually.

The latest figures show that at the current rate, this year's recruitment target will be missed. Some 603 students have applied to science PGCE courses with a physics specialism starting this September and 344 have accepted a place.

IOP staff have held events at physics departments, and one at an engineering department to explain to students the benefits of teaching. But they believe bigger changes are needed if the ambitious target is to be met.

"We wanted separate targets, and campaigned for them, so we now feel morally obliged and feel committed to helping the Government meet these targets," said Professor Peter Main, IOP director of education and science.

"If we want almost 1,000 new physics teachers a year it's clear they are not all going to be physics graduates," he said. "We have to look at where these people are going to come from, and engineers are low-hanging fruit.

"A joint physics and maths course would also encourage schools to use physics teachers as maths teachers, something which rarely happens at the moment because of the way departments are organised.

Professor Main said he had had a meeting with schools minister Nick Gibb, who was "receptive".

"We feel universities will also be now they can't just rely on recruiting biologists for training courses."

There are currently specialist physics PGCEs, but students still have to train in the other two science subjects. There is one maths with physics course, run by Leicester University.

A DfE spokesperson said: "Ministers are clear we need to attract more top science graduates into teaching. There is ample evidence that the countries which deliver the best education in the world are those which value their teachers most highly and where the profession attracts the brightest graduates."



Plans to bar students with third-class degrees from entering the profession should be scrapped for those hoping to teach chemistry or physics, science organisations argue in a new report.

PGCE tutors have been told not to accept trainees with less than a 2:2 from this September, but this will harm recruitment in shortage subjects, according to Score - the Science Community Representing Education.

The Department for Education has introduced the changes to "raise the quality" of new entrants to teaching. But the Score publication, Subject Specialist Teaching in the Sciences: definitions, targets and data, says degrees class is "not necessarily reflective of an individual's aptitude for teaching".

The report says had the 2:2 cut-off been in place in 2010 there would have been about 100 fewer trainees in physics.

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