If you work in the sciences you would need to have had your head buried in sand not to have heard the clamour to get more women into the STEM subjects over the last 20 years or so. Many a government minister has sought to address the gender imbalance which is nowhere more evident than in physics. Great effort and expense has been committed to try to improve the statistics, yet over the past 20 years the participation of girls in physics has actually fallen rather than risen across the UK. Why is this? The approach until now has frequently been simplistic, essentially seeking to persuade girls that they should be more interested in science, as though it were some deficiency in them that has led to this situation.
The Institute of Physics has published two reports in the last two years looking at this problem. The reports use statistics from England, as pupil level progression tracking available through the NPD in England was not available for any of the devolved nations, but it is reasonable based on other indicators (such as those in figure 1) to assume that the situation is no better (if not worse) in Wales. The first report showed that the kind of school which a girl attends profoundly affects her likelihood of choosing physics as one of her A-levels, implying that school culture plays a role. The second report looked at 6 subjects which suffer from a large gender bias (including three where uptake is low among boys). This report found that a dismal 81% of state-funded mixed schools were doing nothing to challenge the strong biases in these subjects, and that those schools which did manage to improve slightly the already dreadful gender imbalance in physics were typically those which also addressed it across the other subjects covered by the study. This further reinforces the stance that school culture is driving choices and that for progress to be made a whole school (and perhaps an even wider) approach is needed – we can no longer limit these campaigns to the science department.
Figure 1 – Uptake of physics A-Level as % of all A-level entrants 2002-2013 for Wales and the UK. Credit Wendy Sadler
So what about Wales? We can see in figure 1 that the relative uptake of physics A-level in Wales has shown little divergence from the rest of the UK in recent years, and that the extent of gender bias in the uptake is practically the same year on year. As an economy which is heavily reliant on physics based industry (Wales’ income as a % of GDP from physics based industry is the highest of any of the nations) one could make the case that the need to access as many students with a physics A-level as possible is even more pressing in Wales than elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, almost all students who obtain a physics A-level go on to do a STEM degree. The current Education Minister has acknowledged the importance of addressing the issue, and the 2012 Science for Wales policy document highlights the need to reach girls through STEM engagement.
One proven way of increasing the number of girls taking physics is to improve their everyday classroom experience. Generally, Wales is not currently matching England in addressing these issues, especially around teacher recruitment and development. At the Institute of Physics, we are glad that physics PGCE bursaries are now equivalent in Wales to those across the border, but we have identified a worrying trend in physics teacher numbers. Take a look at figure 2. These data come from the General Teachers Council of Wales. Physicists in the 35-40 age group seem to be leaving the profession in droves. We do not see this trend in the other sciences.
Figure 2 – Age distribution of teachers with a physics degree registered with the GTCW in Wales.
The Institute is currently trying to try to identify the cause of this dip. One thing is clear: Wales is heading towards a crisis in science teaching if teacher retention is not addressed soon. A crude but conservative estimate from these data indicates that Wales has lost around 200 years of teaching experience in physics in the last four years. An abundance of research exists to show links between progression and performance in science and the specialism of the teacher. The Institute of Physics has received funding in England to run the Stimulating Physics Network which provides non specialists who are teaching Physics with tailored training to increase their confidence in delivering the Physics curriculum, especially at GCSE. This programme has seen remarkable results, especially in the progression of girls to A-level in participating schools.
Wales is a small country and we should be able to make a big difference with relatively small steps. One recommendation of the Institute of Physics reports is that gender balance be included as a criterion in school inspection reports. This may sound extreme, but bear in mind that under equality legislation schools have a legal duty to challenge these gender biases. Whatever is done, it must address the whole school culture. Wales has a rare opportunity on this issue to lead, rather than follow, the rest of the UK and it is our hope that the opportunity is not missed.