Have we reached Peak Physics?

One of the interesting bits of news I picked up concerning last week’s A-level results is a piece from the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking A-level physics. The opening paragraph reads:

Although there was an overall rise of 2% in the number of A-level entries, the number taking physics fell to 36,287 compared with 36,701 last year – the first time numbers have fallen since 2006. The number of girls taking physics rose by 0.5%, however.

The decline is slight, of course, and it’s obviously too early to decide whether we’ve reached Peak Physics or not. It remains the case however that Physics departments in UK universities are competing for a very small pool of students with A-levels in that discipline. With some universities, e.g. Newcastle, opening up physics programmes that they had previously closed, competition  is going to be intense to recruit students across the sector unless the pool of qualified applicants increases substantially.

The article goes on to speculate that students may be put off doing physics by the perception that it is harder than other subjects. It may even be that some schools – mindful of the dreaded league tables – are deliberately discouraging all but the brightest pupils from studying physics in case their precious league table position is affected.

That’s not a line I wish to pursue here, but I will take the opportunity to rehearse an argument that I have made on this blog before. The idea is one that joins two threads of discussion that have appeared on a number of occasions on this blog. The first is that, despite strenuous efforts by many parties, the fraction of female students taking A-level Physics has flat-lined at 20% for over a decade. This is the reason why the proportion of female physics students at university is the same, i.e. 20%. In short, the problem lies within our school system. This year’s modest increase doesn’t change the picture significantly.

The second line of argument is that A-level Physics is simply not a useful preparation for a Physics degree anyway because it does not develop the sort of problem-solving skills, or the ability to express physical concepts in mathematical language, on both of abilities which university physics depends. Most physics admissions tutors that I know care much more about the performance of students at A-level Mathematics than Physics when it comes to selecting “near misses” during clearing, for example.

Hitherto, most of the effort that has been expended on the first problem has been directed at persuading more girls to do Physics A-level. Since all universities require a Physics A-level for entry into a degree programme, this makes sense but it has not been successful.

I now believe that the only practical way to improve the gender balance on university physics course is to drop the requirement that applicants have A-level Physics entirely and only insist on Mathematics (which has a much more even gender mix at entry). I do not believe that this would require many changes to course content but I do believe it would circumvent the barriers that our current school system places in the way of aspiring female physicists. Not all UK universities seem very interested in widening participation, but those that are should seriously consider this approach.

I am grateful to fellow astronomer Jonathan Pritchard for pointing out to me that a similar point has been made to drop A-level Physics as an entry requirement to  Civil Engineering degrees, which have a similar problem with gender bias.

12 Responses to “Have we reached Peak Physics?”

  1. Tom Watkins Says:

    I don’t believe that allowing students to take up a degree in physics without the A level will make any noticeable difference to the gender inequality found in physics at degree level. The problem is that the vast majority of ‘similar’ degree programmes (ones that potential physics students would have most likely also been considering) also suffer from the same gender inequality to a greater or lesser extent. It could well increase the overall number of students but I can’t see it ever making a dent on the gender issue. Physical sciences need to be marketed to female students from a much younger age to overcome the social issues which i believe are at the root of the problem (“all my friends like x so I should also learn to like x”).

    Granted I don’t know a lot surrounding the issue but i don’t think changing a level requirements would be terribly effective to me, mostly because it wouldn’t have an impact what I believe to be the root cause of the issue.

  2. I agree that this just seems to push the question from “Why aren’t more girls studying physics at University level?” to “Why aren’t more girls studying physics at A-level?”

    I don’t see how removing the physics A-level as a prerequisite to getting onto the university course will improve gender balance in physics given that females already choose to not take the physics A-level with a view to getting on a physics degree course.

  3. Chris Satterley Says:

    Surely we should be trying to make physics A level a) more relevant to young women and b) a better preparation for a Physics degree? The author may say that a) has failed (how much effort has really been put into this by Schools?), however, b) is a separate issue and should be tackled first before just ditching the course completely.

    Also, what evidence is there that it is Physics A-level specifically that is the problem here? How can the author be so sure that dropping this requirement will lead to more women in the subject? It strikes me as a big assumption to suggest that this issue is particularly to do with a post-16 qualification, rather than some more deep-seated issue with the subject of Physics, a subject dominated by male role-models and almost exclusively represented by male protagonists in popular culture (key TV physicists are male (Cox, Al Khalili) and how many of the physicists in ‘Big Bang Theory’ were potrayed by women? One, short-lived and rather unflattering minor character in a world dominated by men).

    Also, I note that the author is a theoretical physicist and so his dismissal of physics A-level as providing little value is more understandable. However, for some students physics A-level will be the only experimental subject they study for 2 years before entering a physics degree programme. Dropping the requirement for physics A-level could be seen as a bit of an attack on experimental physics and the skills it needs. The last thing we need is to devalue experimental physics further.

    • Chris Satterley Says:

      I, personally, think the problem is much broader than physics A-level and is about how we teach science to girls during pre-16 compulsory schooling. The IOP have been pretty active in looking at this. This 2013 report (http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/closing-doors/page_62076.html) strongly suggests that many Schools are actively failing to improve the gender imbalance in Physics and are making things worse! Also, the study concludes that those Schools with lower gender imbalance in Physics have lower gender imbalances in other subjects too.

      I think the answers to what we can do to make the School environment more supportive of girls who have scientific talent are out there (in studies such as the IOPs Girls into Physics: Action Research report: http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/action_research/page_41736.html). What, however, is failing is that addressing issues such as this require dedicated time and resources in Schools, which are now, for the most part, top-down, performance-metric driven cultures that habitually overwork their staff. I chair a local section of a learned society (not IOP) that do a lot of educational engagement and outreach and although we offer funding and resources and broadcast widely across the region (with the help of dedicated professional education coordinators), uptake is still horrendously low in the state sector. This simply isn’t a priority for the standard overworked science teacher – because it isn’t a priority for head teachers or the DfE.

      As regards evidence about the impact of role models. There is a body of work looking at why women don’t study economics that is relevant to this and shows that the gender of role models is important. Examples include:


      Of course, when looking for role models one shouldn’t just latch on to anyone because of their gender (although the take down of Ada Lovelace that you link to does have its own critics too). But what about our male heroes? Thomas Edison springs to mind as someone who was a little bit over-rated and took sole credit for the work of others. There are also many media-friendly male scientists today who seem to have their scientific prowess grossly over-estimated due to their high profile and have been subject to online criticism – strange you didn’t link to any of that…

  4. John Anderson Says:

    Steven Pollock at CU/Boulder has studied this subject. Just for reference –

    While it has been suggested interactive engagement (IE) techniques can eliminate the gender gap (the difference in performance between men and women on measures of conceptual learning), we find that, at our institution, the gender gap persisted from pre to posttest in IE classes (Pollock, Physical Review: ST PER. 3, 010107, 2007). This talk reports on a three-part follow-up study that investigates what factors contribute to the gender gap. First, we analyze student grades in different components of the course and find that men and women’s course grades are not significantly different (p>0.1), but men outscore women on exams and women outscore men on homework and participation. Second, we compare average posttest scores of men and women who score similarly on the pretest and find that there are no significant differences between men and women’s average posttest scores. Finally, we analyze other factors in addition to the pretest score that could influence the posttest score and find that gender does not account for a majorportion of the variation in posttest scores when a measure of mathematics performance is included. These findings indicate that the gender gap exists in interactive physics classes, but may be due in large part to differences in preparation, background, and math skills as assessed by traditional survey instruments.

    Publication Date: 2008

    SInce I was in the last all-male graduating class at my college, I have little to contribute personally.

  5. Clare McGinn Says:

    Isn’t the point that having more options open when it comes to applying to higher education courses has to be a good thing? Reasons for not taking physics at A level may be influenced by social factors and other considerations that may change over the next 2 years. How many people really know what direction they want their career to take at the age of 15? By the way, I am female, and I did take Physics A Level which I believe I found considerably easier because I was also taking Maths and Further Maths A Levels (compared with those of my peers who did not take any Maths A Levels) and I went on to study Engineering at University.

  6. Stephen Addison Says:

    When I did A level (40 years ago) it was a good preparation for my first degree at Cardiff. Gender imbalance in physics is not just a UK problem – though, as it happens, women were well represented in my Cardiff class. I don’t think that dropping the A level in physics would help. I achieved notable success in improving the gender balance in a US physics department through hiring. In my experience, the way to encourage more women to enter physics programs as students is by having more women on the faculty. The argument that changing the entry requirements would have an effect is frankly insulting. A level physics used to be a good preparation for both theorists and experimentalists – it still could be.

    • telescoper Says:

      But they don’t have A-levels in the USA so I think you’re rather missing the point.

      • Stephen Addison Says:

        Not missing the point at all – what I’m saying is that it isn’t the exams that are the problem, rather it is the lack of role models in the departments.

      • telescoper Says:

        It’s not. It’s the lack of ecnouragement in schools. Female students choose (not) to do Physics A-level long before they’ve visited any departments. We could have all-female faculty but that wouldn’t help the fact that girls get put off doing physics long before they even think about applying to university.

  7. […] on from a provocative post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on this blog (which was subsequently reblogged by the Times Higher), I was contacted by Paul Crowther who sent […]

  8. […] the other hand I did notice something worrying that seems to be the continuation of a trend I noticed last year.  I quote from a piece issued by the Institute of Physics about the number of students taking […]

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