A farewell to physics?

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 11 August 2006.

That physics education is in decline is beyond doubt; the figures speak for themselves. According to a research study recently published by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson, educationalists based at the University of Buckingham, the numbers of students taking A-level physics has since 1990 fallen by 35%, at the same time that A level entries rose overall by over 12%. The decline is claimed to be most noticeable in the state school sector.

During the same period, a number of university physics departments have closed, or been merged with others in order to save costs. Between 1994 and 2004, the numbers of home students reading physics at university level fell by nearly 30%, and this has impacted severely on departments’ funding, including that devoted to research.

As a university-based research physicist involved with teaching undergraduate students, I saw during the 1990s a steady decline in both the numbers and quality of students entering the departments in which I worked, and the negative financial and motivational effect this had on my colleagues. I have also taught school students as a private tutor, and helped students with little motivation to study the subject, but a real or perceived need to pass physics exams in order to further their educational and career goals.

What are the causes of the decline? The Guardian report of the Buckingham research is headlined “Physics in downward spiral as pupils think it is too difficult”, which, while attention grabbing, is certainly not a claim of the Buckingham authors. Physics is not an easy option, by any stretch of the imagination, even with the severe dumbing down in recent years of A-level syllabuses. But it is one thing to say that students are choosing subjects other than physics, and quite another to make a connection with the difficulty of physics, real or otherwise.

The reasons why students are opting to study other subjects will never be revealed by Smithers and Robinson’s metrics-based study. For this we require more in-depth sociological research that includes interviews with the young people concerned. In the study there is very little discussion of career prospects and students’ perceptions of the labour market, and, indeed, very little in the way of broader socio-economic context. The methodology appears to be sound, but, for this kind of study, raw statistical analysis is far from sufficient to answer the questions posed by the authors.

A levels are crucial, as, for many students, it is at this level that overall career direction is decided. But Key Stage 4 is in my view far more important in the wider scheme of things, for if teachers cannot interest their students in science at this level, they have probably lost them for good.

The Buckingham authors make implicit criticism of GCSE combined science, appearing to prefer the separate science syllabuses that are more commonly taught in the independent sector, but the arguments in the report are far from developed. There is no discussion of alternatives to the GCSE and A-level system such as the Baccalaureate, in which students must study a broader curriculum than is usual in UK schools; nor do the authors address potential flaws in the British university degree model and the lack of liberal arts education in the UK.

Intensive and highly specialised 3-year degrees put pressure on students to decide too early on career direction, and it is highly likely that their decision to drop physical sciences at A level is, at least in part, a consequence of this.

Overall, I think that students are making a rational decision when they decide against studying physics at higher levels. Smithers and Robinson themselves acknowledge that many students studying physics at A level, and with a genuine interest in the subject, then go on to read other physical sciences, engineering and IT-related subjects at university. And so they should, given the state of the labour market today.

For all but the very brightest students, and those who manage to win places at the more prestigious universities, it makes sense to major in a subject that provides more in the way of career potential. Physics may be a fantastic subject to study for those with intelligence and inquiring minds, but as a career option it is somewhat restrictive, even if the skills acquired in the process of studying physics may be useful in other fields.

Where Smithers and Robinson are strongest is in their analysis and discussion of the crisis in physics teaching, as opposed to learning. That is, why are so few able physics graduates opting to teach the subject, and especially in state schools? We are in a vicious spiral, in which there are not enough young people coming through the university system with physics degrees, willing to sacrifice potentially lucrative careers in the private sector for low starting salaries as state school teachers. And then there is the bureaucracy.

State school teaching is simply not an attractive career, except for those who feel they have an overriding vocation to work with children. Teaching has over many years become de-professionalised, and many teachers feel trapped and unable to function to the best of their ability. Not only are physics graduates failing to enter the teaching profession, but significant numbers of those who do train as teachers end up leaving to work in other fields. This often results in non-physicists teaching the subject, when they are neither qualified to do so, nor have sufficient professional support. The shortage of good physics teachers is the key problem, not the falling numbers of young people opting to study physics at A level and beyond.