The Critical Shortage of UK Physics Teachers

I came across this little video at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation website and thought I would share it here.

The video (or “motion graphic”) makes the point that the impact of innovative thinking and interventions resulted in an increase in the supply of physics teachers until 2012 but since then it has subsequently declined, with serious implications not only for physics but for the country as a whole.

I quote:

Modelling by the Department for Education (DfE) and the Institute of Physics (IoP) suggests that we need to recruit around 1,000 new physics teachers every year for at least the next decade in order to meet demand. This year, just 661 teachers started physics teacher training, down from a peak of 900 in 2012. The stark reality is that, if we are to meet the demand for physics teachers and ensure that all pupils have access to well-qualified, specialist teachers, we must look at new ways to recruit, train and retain physics teachers.

Indeed. We’re planning a bit initiative here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, of which more anon..

It seems to me that the basic problem is threefold: (a) that there aren’t enough physics students at University in the first place; (b) that good physics graduates are very employable and get snapped up quickly by employers; (c) that teaching doesn’t seem an attractive career option compared to the many others available. Many efforts focus on (c) but the root cause of the problem is actually (a)…

..nevertheless, I will use this opportunity to point out that bursaries of £25K are available to excellent physics graduates wanting to become physics teachers, courtesy of the Institute of Physics. The deadline for the latest round of applications is this Monday (4th May). Here’s a promotional video:

9 Responses to “The Critical Shortage of UK Physics Teachers”

  1. Phillip Helbig Says:

    How easily can a physics graduate in the UK decide to become a teacher if he hasn’t had this in mind from the beginning? Don’t teachers needs some sort of additional pedagogical university qualification?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes that’s true in all subjects and it is complete bullshit. If you are on top of the subject, motivated to teach, and know how to maintain classroom discipline, then you will almost certainly be good at it and what little more you need to know can be learned in a short on-the-job mentoring scheme. Instead you get sent on a year’s indoctrination into methods of teaching which have drastically reduced literacy and numeracy in the last 40 years and about how pupils learn, which is as relevant to actually teaching them as is a knowledge of Newton’s laws to catching a ball. The teacher training courses and colleges do not need reforming; they are part of the problem and need abolishing.

    • telescoper Says:

      Under the current system a physics graduate will usually have to take a PGCE after they graduate in order to become a teacher. The structure and content of the PGCE is part of the problem.

  2. I don’t see how (a) will solve the problem – you may have more undergraduates, but teaching as a career will still be unattractive to good students. I have enough ex-teacher friends to know I would have to utterly desperate for a job to even consider it…so (c) seems the solution that is needed to me.

    • telescoper Says:

      It seems clear to me that increasing the number of physics graduates will increase the number of potential physics teachers.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        The key here is “potential”. it doesn’t matter how many potential teachers there are if they get hired by other employers (b) since teaching is not attractive enough (c). If teaching were more attractive, then I’m sure that more people would want to become physics teachers.

  3. I know several PhD astrophysicists who have tried teaching. The only ones still in it are those who went into the independent sector and thus did not need a PGCE.

    One particular example: a supposedly innovative PGCE course had a strong element of training on the job, so the PhD physicist spent a lot of time from square one in school. Among many problems was that the lesson plans that OFSTED required for each lesson had a different format to those required by the PGCE. So two separate plans had to be done for each lesson, doubling what was already a lot of work.

    Then there are the exams. I saw one of the GCSE multiple choice papers. Knowing some physics I could both see the answer the exam wanted but also see that other answers would be right if you knew more physics than had been taught.

    And surrounding all this was, I am told, the feeling that most of what state schools do at GCSE is crowd control and warehousing the kids so their parents can work.

    This is not an environment where someone motivated by their subject will do well, and artificially manfacturing unemployment in the field to force physicists into teaching is a bad bad idea.

    State schools need to be fixed first, so that their teachers are respected, supported, trusted, not assessed and spied on at every turn. Parents need to support them, as they do in independent schools, and more resources are needed.

    And this is not just true of physics teachers. I have similar stories from friends in other fields who have tried teaching.

    Further, if you’ve got used to the perfectionism and high grade performance typical of good uni lecturing, trying to do that for 6 hours straight every day will kill you.

  4. I’ve just retired from teaching Physics after 35 years following 5 years in the nuclear industry and would not advocate a career as a Physics teacher. My three sons all have Physics A Level and Physics and Engineering based degrees and have thankfully pursued much more lucrative and rewarding careers.
    It’s too much of a generalisation to say that the lack of Physics teachers is due to the number of Physics graduates or the nature of the profession. It’s a combination of many factors and ultimately people make important decisions for a whole variety of reasons. My 3 sons have witnessed first hand the lifetime negative effects of a teaching career and off their own bats made the decision to avoid Physics teaching like the plague.
    To teach Physics in state schools often requires a PGCE qualifying you to teach science to GCSE level. This puts many off. Physics has more in common with mathematics than biology. The majority of Physics graduates do not have an A Level in biology so teaching it to GCSE will prove challenging.
    Teaching Physics in the independent sector is preferable as the majority offer the separate sciences and A level Physics so one can specialise more. However the teaching is a small part of the loading in private schools. Look at the job adverts. They all come with ‘candidates will be expected to play a full part in the pastoral and extracurricular life of the school’. This is the killer. Unlike mathematics and the humanities, teaching Physics requires a considerable amount of time trialing and testing demoes and practicals and preparing the experimental side generally. The majority of Heads do not understand this. Independent schools make their money through good results, but also offering an extensive range of activities and daily pastoral support. This creates a serious conflict for many Physics teachers who need time to prepare and focus.
    There are thus unresolved conflict areas for Physics teachers in both state and the independent sectors and this is even before one considers the loading due to political interference, inspections, health and safety, CPD, marking, preparation, constantly changing curriculum and resources. Holidays were not a perk, they were a necessity to recover from exhaustion and sometimes burnout.
    I didn’t want to do a PhD in Physics after graduating as jobs are few and far between, remuneration is not overly good and I didn’t like the ethos of having to publish papers preferably based on wealth creating research. I went into teaching as I have a religious passion for my subject area and wanted it to share it with others.
    The current situation has now however completely crushed my enthusiasm for teaching Physics in a school based environment. To be a Physics teacher is 99% zoo keeping and stamp collecting, and 1% Physics. A good degree in Physics and a career in Physics teaching no longer marries well and the system has currently achieved maximum disorder with minimum free energy. Do not currently consider physics teaching as a lifelong career. The economy is now on the up and there are far more lucrative and rewarding careers out there, even considering the £25000 bribe.

  5. Teacher training has been failing the system for years … retired career Physics teacher.

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