Top pupils shun physics A-level

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Brightest GCSE students avoid 'difficult' science; state-school girls show least enthusiasm

Fewer of the best GCSE candidates go on to study A-level physics than any other subject, a study has found.

New research carried out by academics at Cambridge Assessment, which owns the OCR exam board, found that candidates who achieve an A* or A grade in double-science GCSE are far more likely to go on to take biology or chemistry A-level than study physics.

Since the early 1990s, there has been a steady decline in the proportion of candidates taking A-level physics. And there has been a similar, if smaller, decline in the number of passes. This is in contrast to the overall increases in A-level passes in all subjects, including chemistry and biology.

The researchers examined the results of more than 230,000 17-year-olds taking at least one A-level in the academic year 200708, to determine who chooses to study physics.

They found that the percentage of male pupils taking the subject at A-level - 16.5 per cent - was much higher than the percentage of female pupils - 3.6 per cent.

But this gender gap was visible even among the very top performers at GCSE. Only 10 per cent of girls who achieve an A* at physics GCSE go on to take the subject at A-level, compared with a quarter of boys with the same grade.

The researchers said: "This suggests that female students at all levels are taking A-level physics in much fewer numbers than their male counterparts; it is not that they are achieving less well in physics (or double science) at GCSE."

Girls at grammar and independent schools were far more likely to take physics A-level than their state-school counterparts. By contrast, boys were more likely to opt for physics if they attended comprehensive schools.

The researchers suggest this difference may be a result of divergent gender expectations.

"There is a perception that physics is more of a boys' subject, and this perception may be more entrenched in state schools," they said. "This perception may be less among the higher-ability students in independent and grammar schools, or may be less in female-only schools."

Pupils' attitudes to physics varied depending on whether they were at single-sex or mixed schools. Boys in mixed schools were more likely to take A-level physics than those in single-sex schools, but girls were far more likely to opt for physics if they were at single-sex schools.

"Gender stereotypes ... were there to a lesser degree in single-sex schools," the researchers said.

And the study suggests that lack of interest in the subject could also be attributed to a shortage of qualified specialist physics teachers.

"Pupils taught by non-specialists are less likely to have a good grounding in the subject ... and may, therefore, find it more difficult than the other sciences," they said. "This means they will be less likely to study it at A-level."

This contributes to a vicious circle, with few pupils studying physics to A-level meaning fewer physics graduates, which in turn means even fewer specialist physics teachers.

"That physics is perceived as difficult by both genders is of little doubt," the researchers said. "Further intervention may be necessary, not just to encourage students to take physics beyond GCSE, but to increase numbers taking it at degree level, and encourage physics graduates to go into teaching."


Percentage of candidates taking A-level subjects, by GCSE grade

Biology - A*: 47.9 A: 37.8 B: 22.5

Chemistry - A*: 55.7 A: 35.9 B: 16.4

Maths - A*: 67.9 A: 32.8 B: 5.1

Physics - A*: 40.6 A: 26.3 B: 12.2

Percentage of pupils taking physics A-level

Girls with A* grades: 26.2

Girls with A grades: 12.3

Boys with A* grades: 49.5

Boys with A grades: 35.4

Percentage of physics A-level passes

1991: 5.5; 2000: 4.8; 2007: 3.9.

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