Decline of physics must be halted

7th March 1997 at 00:00
In his article on A-level physics entries (TES, February 21), Professor Smithers failed to convey just how disastrous the present situation is.

His statement that "the expected upturn of A-level physics entries in 1996 with the number of 18-year-olds did not occur" masks the reality of a very significant fall in 1996.

For the past two decades until 1996, the number of A-level physics entries remained between 6.1 and 6.4 per cent of the number of 18-year-olds. The figures for the period 1990-96 are shown in the table below.

In 1996, the number of entries ought to have risen from 34,761 in the previous year to over 35,000 if the well-established demographic relationship of the previous 15 years had held. Instead, the number of entries in 1996 fell below 33,000.

Physics and engineering lecturers in our universities should be alarmed by the 1996 figures which, if not reversed, represent an annual loss of more than 2,000 potential higher education physics and engineering students.

Government ministers should be even more alarmed since an annual loss on this scale would create a shortfall of over 5,000 scientist and engineers by 2025.

Professor Smithers warns us to watch the relationship between double-award GCSE science and A-level physics entries.

The 1996 cohort of A-level candidates commenced their GCSE courses as 14-year-olds in 1992, the year when GCSE physics, chemistry and biology courses were phased out in LEA secondary schools and replaced by double-award GCSE-science courses.

The depth and breadth of physics taught to our 14 to 16-year-olds was drastically reduced as a result of this change.

In view of the linear nature of physics, it doesn't take a genius to work out that the probable outcome of such a change is a reduction in the proportion of 16-year-olds opting to take A-level physics.

The decline in A-level physics entries in 1996 is the result of forcing double-award GCSE science on all LEA secondary schools, and responsibility for the decline therefore lies solely with this government.

Most independent schools have retained GCSE physics, chemistry and biology courses and continue to recruit heavily to A-level physics courses.

Britain in the 21st century can ill afford the reduction in the proportion of scientists and engineers in the workforce that would follow if the decline in A-level physics entries is not reversed drastically.

The only sure way to reverse the decline is to reintroduce GCSE separate sciences in all LEA secondary schools without delay.

JIM BREITHAUPT 38 Hall Brow Close Ormskirk Lancashire

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