Physics teaching in England and Wales is in crisis and urgent action must be taken to stop the subject from disappearing from schools, according to new research.
The plummeting number of students taking A-level physics is directly linked to the worrying shortage of well-qualified staff teaching the subject in schools, the study by the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham claims.
The survey of 432 schools and colleges warned that England and Wales were "sleepwalking" towards disaster. Physics A-level entries have fallen by 38 per cent since 1990 at a time when overall entries in all subjects leapt by nearly 15 per cent.
Nearly 10 per cent of state schools with sixth forms now do not offer A-level physics, and almost 40 per cent had five entries or fewer in 2005. Over the same period, the intake of new physics teachers has dropped from about a third of science staff to just 12.8 per cent.
A teacher's qualifications in physics is the most important factor, after pupil ability, in determining the grades that their students will achieve in GCSE and A-level physics exams, the study by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson found. In a blow to the Government's specialist schools programme, the study found that teachers of physics in specialist science schools were less well qualified in physics than teachers of the subject in arts or language specialist schools.
Students from the poorest backgrounds were the most likely to be taught by the worst qualified teachers, leading to a growing social divide in the study of physics, they found.
Professor Smithers blamed the Government's market approach to education for the divide. "This is a consequence of the policy that the Government is pursuing. If you have a market, then a characteristic of a market is that some people get a better deal than others. We have a situation where there are not enough well-qualified physics teachers to go round and the teachers that are there are choosing to work in the schools with the best facilities and the most enthusiastic and able children.
"Historically, many of our top physicists have come from working-class backgrounds so we are probably losing out on many brilliant scientists because of this. Morally, we are also denying a lot of young people the opportunity to discover what they enjoy doing."
Concern about the decline in popularity of physics, chemistry and maths is long running, but this is the first detailed study to document the current state of physics in schools.
In nearly a quarter of schools without sixth forms, none of the teachers now has any experience of physics at university.
Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of teachers of physics in independent schools with sixth forms held at least a joint honours degree in the subject, compared with fewer than two-fifths in comprehensive schools with sixth forms.
The report found that half of the teachers of physics had not studied physics to any level at university.Reuse content