Social mobility tsar urged to apologise for saying girls dislike ‘hard maths’

Katharine Birbalsingh was addressing MPs discussing diversity in Stem subjects.

Catherine Lough
Wednesday 27 April 2022 16:36
Katharine Birbalsingh told MPs that girls do not seem to ‘fancy’ physics as much as other subjects (PA)
Katharine Birbalsingh told MPs that girls do not seem to ‘fancy’ physics as much as other subjects (PA)

The Government’s social mobility tsar has been criticised for comments implying that girls do not study A-level science because they dislike “hard maths”.

Katharine Birbalsingh told a meeting of the Science and Technology Committee to discuss diversity in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects that girls do not seem to “fancy” physics as much as other subjects.

She said that in chemistry, biology and maths at her school, the Michaela Community School in Brent, girls make up the majority of students at A-level apart from in physics, where 16% study the subject.

She told MPs: “Physics isn’t something girls tend to fancy – they don’t want to do it, they don’t like it. It wouldn’t be something here that they don’t choose because they feel it’s not for them, that would certainly not be the case, and it wouldn’t be the case here that they wouldn’t choose it because they didn’t have a good physics teacher.

“I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do, and that’s not to say that there isn’t hard stuff to do in biology and chemistry.”

Asked about why girls specifically would not do physics, she said: “In research generally people say it’s a natural thing – I mean I don’t know, I’m not an expert in that sort of thing, but that’s what they say.

“I don’t think there’s anything external – when it comes to our kids… they’re being taught very well, they are doing well at GCSE and they choose the subjects that they want to do.

“We’re certainly not out there campaigning for more girls to do physics; we wouldn’t do that and I wouldn’t want to do that because I don’t mind that there’s only 16% of them taking [it], I want them to do what they want to do.”

Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman Munira Wilson said Ms Birbalsingh should apologise for her comments.

The MP said: “Sadly, stories like this are all too common nowadays. The Conservatives have been dragging their feet and failed to challenge the culture of misogyny and unconscious biases in our education system for years.

“Every child deserves the chance to thrive and follow their passions during their time at school. However, without a dramatic culture shift, so many young women will be continually undervalued and demotivated.

“The Government must finally step up to the plate and act. We need new measures to challenge these biases, backed up by legislation, and Katharine Birbalsingh should apologise for her remarks.”

Meanwhile, Ms Birbalsingh said there is no issue with the number of ethnic minority pupils taking Stem subjects but rather a shortage of those choosing subjects such as philosophy, theology and history.

“If you come from an immigrant background, and especially if you’re coming from a poorer background and you’ve managed to do well in school, you’re more likely to want to pursue a career that brings more certainty with it,” she said.

“So when you’re doing sciences you think ‘Oh I’m going to become a doctor’, ‘I’m going to work as a lab assistant’ – those are more certain professions.”

Those from a more privileged background might decide to become a poet, actor or writer, she said, “professions that are less secure and far less obvious in their financial reward, and in the eyes of success from family members or community members and so on, you become a poet, people think, ‘What?’ whereas if you become a doctor that’s something people would admire”.

She said this is why her school is not persuading pupils to do physics but is trying to urge them to do philosophy or history.

She also told the committee that rather than addressing a lack of ethnic minority women in science, “we need to address good teaching and good schools generally”.

She said improved schools would see an increased uptake in science from underrepresented groups “because those vulnerable groups are the ones who are hit hardest by perhaps poor discipline, poor teaching and so on”.

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