IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS: THE INFLUENCE OF SCHOOLS
The low numbers of girls choosing to take A-level physics is a continuing cause for concern. It means that girls who would enjoy and excel at A-level physics are being denied the opportunity because their experience of physics up to age 16 is not as encouraging or positive as it should be. Girls and boys do equally well at GCSE-level physics and science/additional science (previously double-award science). However, the percentage of A-level physics students who are girls has stayed at around 20% for the past 20 years or more. To address this problem, the Institute commissioned two pieces of research in 2004. The Review of the Research into the Participation of Girls in Physics (Murphy and Whitelegg 2006) aimed to consolidate current understanding of the problem and to identify reasons from existing research into why girls choose not to continue studying physics post-16. In addition, A Teacher’s Guide to Action (Hollins et al. 2006) included evidence from a study of schools that were particularly successful at encouraging girls to continue with physics post-16.
The main influences on students’ attitudes to physics were found to be:
● self-concept – that is students’ sense of themselves in relation to the subject;
● how students experience physics at school;
● teacher–student relationships – that is, how personally supportive students find their physics teacher.
The Institute, in partnership with the National Network of Science Learning Centres, worked on action-research projects with a number of very engaged teachers and their classes. However, evidence from the report Two years on: A review of the Girls into Physics action-research projects (Laura Grant et al. 2011, unpublished) showed that success is difficult to sustain unless the interventions go beyond the individual teachers and become part of a department or school-wide programme.
In this report we have taken a different approach. Using data from the National Pupil Database, which tracks pupils as they go through school, we have looked for differences in the patterns of choice of A-level physics for girls and boys in different types of schools. We have used data on pupils doing A-levels in England in 2011 tracked back to the school where the pupils were taught for their GCSEs in 2009.