A dearth but picture may be changing


It is widely recognised that physics specialists are under-represented among school science teachers. The  previous government had set a target that by 2014 at least 25% should have physics as a specialism.

Antonia Senior of the Times reminded us recently that in evidence to a Commons select committee this year it emerged that more than one in four schools cannot offer physics A level because of a shortage of teachers. This arresting  fact emerged with barely a whimper, when it should have caused an outpouring of national rage and reproach. Last year 25,643 pupils sat physics A level, down from about 45,000 in the late 1980s. Only a pathetic 5,628 were girls. Who needs physicists, however, when we have 30,537 kids with business studies A levels, not to mention 49,743 with psychology credentials? Seniors view is that as the world’s intellectual and economic capital shifts towards Asia, the humanities bias in schools and popular culture is beginning to look dangerous.

Between 1982 and 2006 A-level physics entries halved from 55,728 to 27,466. The number of 18-year-olds fell and there were more A-levels to choose from, but the decline seems to have been mainly an unintended consequence of the switch from the separate sciences to combined science at GCSE. It was the previous governments policy to revert to the separate sciences for the most able. Since 2006 there has been some modest recovery in A-level physics entries, with an increase of 7.3 per cent to 29,436. In contrast to the sharp falls at A-level,  Professor Alan Smithers has found that university physics entries in the UK have remained at much the same level for several decades. This is possible because only about one in ten of those passing A-level physics are needed to fill the university places, even in the lean years.

But its not all gloom.

Applications for teaching  science are up by 40% on last year and maths by 33%, according to the Training and Development Agency for Schools.  There are increased numbers of women entering maths and science teaching. Female applicants for maths teacher training have risen by 35 per cent in the past year compared with an increase of 31 per cent in male candidates. The number of women who want to teach science has increased by 41 per cent compared with 39 per cent for men.  The sharp rise in interest is believed to be fuelled by career changers enticed by cash incentives for teachers in subjects threatened by shortages.  Luke Graham, head of recruitment for the Training and Development Agency (TDA), which oversees the recruitment of trainee teachers, said this was the highest number of women applying for science and maths since records began. “There has been a noticeable increase in the number of women in their 30s applying for maths and science,” he said. “Women are now closing the gap on men in numbers applying to teach maths. These are not redundant bankers, these are people that are choosing a career in teaching.”

More than half of all applications for maths and science teacher training were from people wanting to change career. New science and maths teachers in England receive a £5,000 “golden hello” when they finish training and begin teaching. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has vowed to “go farther” than such incentives offered under Labour and promised to write off their student loans as well.  However far too few state schools offer single sciences to pupils, mainly because of the current shortage of specialist  teachers and most  specialist science schools are not in any meangingful sense ‘specialist’. Indeed as Professors Wiliam and Smithers have established if they outperform non-specialist schools it has nothing to do with their specialism and everything to do with their extra funding.    According to Professor Smithers  we have secondary school system in which the great majority of schools have labels that do not appear to mean very much  Are science schools to educate our future research scientists? But if they are not able to select on ability, how can they possibly  specialize in this respect?  And of course specialist science schools do not have to have more specialist science teachers than any other (non-specialist ) school. And many do not even offer science A levels.

Sir John  Holman, Director of the National Science Learning Centre,  reminded the audience,  at a recent Reform think tank conference ,of the importance of subject knowledge. A teacher must have mastery of his/her subject matter which  too often is  not the case. He said  ” We must continue to recruit and if necessary retrain specialist teachers particularly in shortage subjects and we need subject specific CPD, given the evidence that around 50% of all secondary science teachers have had no subject knowledge CPD in the past five years.” Quite.


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