How many girls are taking A-level physics at your school? If you work in a co-educational secondary in the maintained sector in England, there is a 50:50 chance that the answer is none.
This is a problem. Report after report bemoans the shortage of skilled workers at all levels of the engineering industry in the UK. Figures vary, but estimates suggest that there are around 54,000 vacancies for 1,200 graduate engineers each year. By 2020, the shortfall is predicted to be more than 200,000, which will act as a brake on economic growth.
Increasing the number of girls taking A-level physics is seen as a magic bullet to fix the shortage. Department for Education data says that 20 per cent of those sitting A2 physics and 40 per cent of those taking maths are female. You might think that this demonstrates progress, but it comes after 30 years of initiatives to boost the number of girls studying physical sciences and maths. We should be doing better.
We have learned some lessons, of course. We now know some things that work: all-girls schools and good, inclusive teachers at any school. We also know what doesn’t tend to work: one-off events using role models or visits to engineering employers. Studies have shown that these are useless unless supported by effective teaching.
But there is one area we haven’t looked at. Perhaps the problem is not with girls’ post-16 choices. Perhaps the problem is A-levels themselves. In countries where students specialise later, girls have more chance to see the variety of personal skills needed for careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, and the creative, rewarding life they offer.
At 16, I loved specialising in “geeky” subjects; abandoning the arts, humanities and languages was a delight. But if early specialisation doesn’t work for the UK, perhaps the time has come to swap A-levels for more diverse courses such as the International Baccalaureate, instead of spending another 30 years trying to fix girls.
The author promotes engineering careers in the East of England
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