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Is UK school physics suffering an identity crisis?

Physics hasn’t gone away but the students have Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By James Dacey

Just a quick question for you to ponder over the weekend: what could the UK do to improve the quality and popularity of physics in secondary education?

I ask this now because several UK newspapers have run stories this week about the decline of physics education in the UK. The headlines emerged following a meeting at the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday, the beginnings of a select committee inquiry into the teaching of science, maths and English in schools.

When it came to physics, the focus was on the decline of the A-level award, which students typically study at age 16-18, where the closest US equivalent is probably the AP higher. The two damning statistics that have been doing the rounds are:

a) More than one in four state schools are unable to offer A-level physics due to a lack of specialist teachers.

b) The number of students taking A-level physics has dropped to 29,000 from 44,000 in the 1980s.

The UK Institute of Physics (IOP) responded by pointing to six main problem areas for physics education, which included: the quality of teaching; access to learning; the nature of assessment; the ethos; and the pull of the subject.

The other category is the curriculum itself, where the Institute says that declining standards are deterring students from taking physics or leaving them woefully underprepared for a university education in physics. The Insititute believes that too much change too quickly in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] has left the curriculum piecemeal and incoherent.

“Physics should have a distinctive place in the curriculum,” reads the IOP’s statement. “The invention of a subject called science has led to a loss of identity of the sciences.”

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  1. Greg Hughes

    Very sad… been teaching it for over 20 years to a lot of students, but I agree that good teaching, enthusiasm and the need to develop students confidence are all key.

  2. Nick Evanson

    My personal experiences suggest there may be a 7th ‘main problem’: schools are unwilling to employ well qualified and experienced teachers, when cheap, newly qualified in general science (or with a ‘top-up’ in physics), first-timers are available in droves. In the last 12 months I applied for 5 posts, which resulted in either the youngest/least experienced applicant being awarded the vacancy or not even being selected for interview at all. One may well respond to such a comment along the lines of ‘ever thought that you just weren’t as good as the other person’, which, of course, may well be true but at the interviews were I did gain a place, such schools were not lacking in applicants. So here we are in financially difficult times, with a surfeit of eager and enthusiastic new teachers: what chance has somebody with 10+ years of specialist teaching, with 6+ years of managements, KS2 to HE teaching experience got?
    If one thinks I’m barking up the completely wrong tree, just take a gander through the TES website at the moment:
    Physics = 70 vacancies
    Chemistry = 62
    Biology = 54
    Science = 327
    Mathematics = 477
    It would seem that being a science specialist of any kind is much use at all! In addition to this, I am also greatly concerned about the loss of physics qualifications in the FE/HE sector: Edexcel will no longer be offering Higher Nationals in Applied Physics this year, and the forthcoming changes in the BTEC Nationals in Applied Science have vastly reduced and simplified physics. The government is heavily pushing Foundation Degrees which, by their very nature, cannot have proper undergraduate-level physics in their content: one can gain FdSc quals in nuclear technology and cover nothing more complex than A2-level physics.
    I’ve made a decision to simply give up with the subject and I’m turning to mathematics: it has more support and more interest than pure physics.

  3. I agree. In my opinion the three sciences should be taught as separate subjects much earlier than is being done now.
    There should also be good teachers for physics like Walter Lewin
    from MIT who really radiate an infectious interest for the subject and has the skill to motivate the students, to stimulate their interest and to inspire them to pursue a career in Physics

  4. Dileep Sathe

    Although this story is concerned with crisis in UK physics, that problem is a global one – evident in the celebration of year 2005 as the I.Y.P. Let me start with the mechanics education in schools, age group of students: 12 to 18. John Warren (Brunel) had reported “wrong patterns of thinking” among students of first year of engineering, regarding the circular motion, in the Physics Education, UK, in 1971. Later investigations from various countries supported John Warren’s finding and the global character of it. Then I was able to trace the reason for persistence of Aristotelian way of thinking, in spite of learning Newtonian mechanics in schools – see the letters in Physics Education, UK, (March 1984, November 1995, July 2007) or see the letter on an article of Prof. Carl E. Wieman (Nobel Laureate, Physics, 2001) in CHANGE, May-June 2008, In view of this situation, I think there will not be any significant improvement in the situation, unless the really troubling problems in mechanics education are properly settled by physicists. For more information, contact me through the editor or on (

  5. John Duffield

    Good to see the IOP pushing on this. I was horrified by the things I found out about after our teenage children dropped all their science subjects. I asked my son if he’d seen a van der Graaff generator, and he said no, the most exciting experiment was timing a pendulum – even when its physics rather than dumbed-down “science”, it can be uninspiring. IMHO there are some who are happy with this and the associated “graduate birth control”, whilst others who claim to be promoting physics are pushing snake-oil and actually promoting themselves.
    Nick: your experience makes for more depressing reading.

  6. I seriously considered becoming a physics teacher in 2009, and actually had one interview (serendipity) though I am not formally qualified to teach. I registered with the TDA and they are sending me the most expensive marketing materials, followed up with phone calls. Very heavy marketing. But until the starting salaries are sensible, then their recruitment is going to falter. I simple cannot afford to switch into teaching and pay the costs of the formal teaching qualification course, despite the attraction of the career. They need to get real.

  7. Anon

    Speaking from a student’s point of view, my sixth form actively tries to discourage pupils from taking science and maths A-levels. When I asked to take Mathematics at A-level, along with Physics A-level, they were not very happy. I got all A*-B at GCSE, so it’s not as if I didn’t have the potential to be capable. They suggested that I take finical studies instead. I told them that finical studies would be of no benefit to me at all, as I wanted to take Physics at degree level, and would therefore need a full mathematics A-level. They were still insistent that I take finical studies instead, as I would ‘definitely pass it with an A’.
    There is nothing wrong with the teachers, they are all very supportive. I found that it was management. If they push students into easier subjects, such as finical studies, then they have a higher pass rate, and can boast that so many students received an A grade at A-level, compared to if students take harder subjects, they’re more likely to either not pass at all, or get lower grades.
    In short, the powers that be don’t care what subjects you’re taking at sixth form, just so long as you pass with high grades. So, why encourage students to tackle the harder A-levels when they can take the easier ones and achieve a higher grade, which, from a glance, makes their sixth form look amazing?

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