Recently there was a lot of comment in the press when the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, who is a Headteacher herself, was asked by the Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee about why girls are less likely to study Physics
She prefaced her response with the caveat: ‘from my limited understanding of the subject…’. However, she went on to suggest that the only explanation for this significantly reduced uptake in Physics compared to Biology, Chemistry and Maths was because Physics was: ‘just something that girls don’t tend to fancy.’
She went on to say: ‘there’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think they would rather not do.’ It was with those few words, that she simultaneously called into question girls’ resilience, exhibited gender bias, and reduced Physics, a subject so full of intrigue and elegance, to ‘some hard maths’. When pushed by the Chair to explain the reasons behind why girls would not want to do ‘hard maths’ any more than boys, her justification came in the form of, ‘that’s what they say.’ As soon as the words left her mouth, it was apparent that she regretted saying them and she subsequently wrote an article for the Telegraph, seeking to clarify her comments. However, the question of why girls do not study Physics at A Level is worth reflecting on.
It is a complicated question to try and answer and the Institute of Physics continually leads research into identifying the factors at play. The findings of such research shows that both uptake and outcomes of A Level Physics (and indeed Maths) by girls tends to be higher in single-sex institutions. When it comes to co-educational settings, research suggests that, in these schools, gender imbalances should be actively tackled from early on, at a high level within school. By doing so, unconscious (and conscious) biases are removed, making Physics more accessible to girls and allowing their confidence in the subject to grow. Crucial to all of this is the presence of outstanding Physics teachers in the classroom. Regardless of a student’s gender, race, sexuality or social background, their A Level choices will be driven in no small part by their classroom experiences during their formative years.
At the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, we are well aware of the lack of diversity in Physics and are actively engaging with the underlying causes. Unlike many schools nationally, we are lucky to have a thriving department of six specialist teachers who are evenly split between male and female teachers and led by a female Head of Department. Their gender diversity allows us to role-model the changes we want to see, while their excellent subject knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject helps to build subject confidence in our students.
Promoting Physics and Maths is something we continue to work on at the RGS and we also seek to do more to promote Physics and Maths more widely across the North East through the introduction of both Physics and Mathematics Partnership teachers. The remit of these roles is to provide students in local schools the opportunity to be engaged and challenged in Physics and Maths outside of the classroom setting. Our aim is to help raise aspirations and attainment across the region and, in doing so, change the mindset of students and parents alike by addressing preconceived ideas of Physics and its relevance to career opportunities and industry in the North East. Early statistics are reassuring, with them showing that there is no gender bias in the uptake of these activities and that the interest, capability and resilience of girls in STEM is there to be nurtured.
A second and equally important part of the work of our Partnership teachers comes in the form of supporting staff development and CPD in our Partnership Schools. There are many non-specialist Physics teachers who are doing a fantastic job helping children deepen their understanding of Physics but through supporting them we aim to help many more students than we could as a single school. It is addressing these more nuanced factors that is crucial if we are going to challenge subject stereotypes and increase the uptake of both Physics and Maths at A Level and beyond. At the RGS we whole-heartedly agree with the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission when she says that students should have the freedom to study what they want at A Level, rather than schools striving for a desired demographic. However, students must be able to make those choices free of exposure to bias and misconceptions. With thanks to Rachael Houchin (RGS Head of Physics) Sarah Sharp (RGS Mathematics Partnerships teacher) and Tom Williams (RGS Physics Partnership teacher) for their insights and contributions.