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 The time bomb that is science in British schools 
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Post The time bomb that is science in British schools
by: Gail Dixon

“Recently my stepdaughter was at the end of an English lesson and the teacher asked what she had next. When mathematics was mentioned, the teacher indicated that maths was a tough subject and not really what a person doing English should be studying.” This anecdote from Professor Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics (IOP), points to the existence of a worryingly archaic attitude in British schools.

The perception that ‘boys do maths and science, and girls do humanities and arts’ is one that most people would scoff at today, but research into the options chosen by boys and girls at 13 suggests that gender-stereotyping still exists in schools and is narrowing the career options of thousands of teenagers.

Worryingly, recent tests have shown that that teenage girls in Britain are lagging further behind boys in science than anywhere else in the Western World. A study of 57 nations by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analysed the results of tests taken by around 20 million 15-year-olds. It found that boys in Britain were 10 points ahead of girls in science, a bigger margin than most of the participating countries, apart from Indonesia and Chile.

In the UK, girls are ahead of boys in the Double Award for science, but this is due to the popularity of biology and chemistry. It’s physics that appears to be the problem. Since the 1980s, the numbers of pupils choosing to study physics has fallen from 45,000 to 29,000 and girls, in particular, are gravitating towards other subjects.

The long-term effect of this brain-drain could be profound, as Professor Main makes clear when he asks, “Where are the engineers of the future to come from?”

“When you look at the challenges we face, from climate change and energy security to an ageing population… we need more of the next generation of school and university leavers to be scientifically trained,” says Professor Main.

The brain drain conundrum

There are those educationalists who would propound the theory that girls’ and boys’ brains are hardwired differently and hence boys naturally gravitate towards blowing things up or dismantling engines and putting them back together again. If this is so, why are girls lagging behind in science in the UK and the problem is not so acute elsewhere? It’s a conundrum that is baffling scientists, ironically.

There’s a plethora of government-backed schemes to usher girls into science – and many good role models to offer inspiration – but experts like Professor Main believe that the people behind these schemes are missing a trick.

The IOP has collated research into the reasons why girls might feel alienated from the physics lab. According to Professor Main, it’s down to a “complex mix of psychology, sociology and peer group pressure”.

The IOP report Girls in the Physics Classroom (Murphy and Whitelegg, 2006) highlighted the following key findings:

• Girls are more likely than boys to value the social context in which tasks are placed in defining a problem.

• Typical secondary physics tends not to be concerned with the social context at all.

• There’s a generally held belief among teachers and pupils that physics is ‘difficult’ and this is off-putting.

• A lack of success in the subject increases the ‘sense of inadequacy’, something that girls seem feel more than boys.

• Males are more likely than females to rate themselves as successful learners in maths and science.

• There is a lack knowledge of the range of science-related careers.

Teachers make all the difference

Girls respond better when they have a supportive, attentive physics teacher, which comes as no surprise. However, Girls in the Physics Classroom revealed several worrying trends about science teaching and gender.

It appears that teachers expect boys to do better than girls in science and physics, and in science classes, teachers tend to give more attention to boys as a group than girls….

Take a deep breath. Clearly there is much work to do in order to boost girls’ confidence and make physics more engaging and relevant to them. So, how do schools begin to address these issues?

“Within the school, two factors seem to be very important,” says Professor Main. “The first is that teachers are aware that different things are important to girls and boys; for girls, context can be important and they seem to be more sensitive to a poor classroom experience.

“The second factor is the culture of the school. The schools that encourage most girls to study physics post-16 are those that have a positive, ‘can-do’ culture.”

Teachers need to…

• Represent science as something that people ‘do’: influenced by historical, political, cultural and personal factors, not just as ‘a body of knowledge’

• Use the values of science as a topic for discussion and critique

• Use a variety of social situations to organise the scientific content of the course.

The IOP has prepared a series of recommendations for teachers on how to make physics teaching more engaging for girls, and has CD Roms and videos available via Teachers TV to make physics more attractive to girls (for more details, see panel below).

“Take risks in the classroom”

Many science teachers are already trying to introduce change. William Austen, a science teacher at Summer Fields, a prep school in Oxfordshire, says, “Science is about blowing things up and cutting things up and boys have always just seemed to take to it more naturally than girls. I don’t think that it is a gender specific subject anymore, though.

“In the past, the subject has been taught very poorly, but it should be the easiest subject to teach. The key is practical work, rather than textbooks. Give demonstrations with bangs and smells. There are endless possibilities and you have to take risks.”

Excursions and creative approaches have helped to ‘modernise’ science teaching at Wycliffe College in Gloucestershire. “Science is a very high profile subject at the school,” says head of physics Lorraine Paine.

“We have made it more exciting by organising trips to the large Hadron collider at Geneva. We went before the machine was fired up and were able to stand in the tunnel miles under the earth, which you can’t do now. I still refer to it when teaching and the students were so fired up on their return that it is very much in conversation. We are taking the students to Houston next year, prior to the remaining space shuttle missions.” Wycliffe also organises ‘mock murders’ where students have to carry out DNA tests to find the murderer.

The teacher’s view: Damien King, a science teacher at Brighton College

“Boys definitely like to jump into things while girls like to sit back and consider things first. In a lesson, boys won’t read any instructions and leap into trying to make something whereas girls will read through things first – girls are scribes and boys are do-ers.

“I plan lessons so that they are relevant and stray away from unconnected facts. You have to make it interactive. I usually start with a wow-factor, show them something amazing and use the lesson to make them understand why that happens and why it is amazing. Both girls and boys seem to do very well in the written exams.

“We always try to engage girls back into science. For example, we may concentrate in a lesson on a Formula One engine or the material of diamond. Girls like to see the context and how science relates to the bigger picture. Girls also seem to be very encouraged by getting good marks.

“A general problem that may be affecting girls’ interest in science in the UK is that of unenthusiastic teaching, for example a biology teacher having to teach chemistry. This will have an affect on the students’ enthusiasm.

“A national view may be that girls’ role models aren’t the same anymore. They are looking more to celebrities than to role models such as the British scientist Susan Greenfield.”

Case study: The pupil’s view: “Science is never boring

Millie Pang is 17 years old and is studying AS-level sciences, maths and art at Wycliffe College in Gloucestershire. She aims to study bio-medicine at Oxford, Cambridge or London next year.

“I’m passionate about science because it’s the reason why we’re all here. Science is in what we see, do and eat.

“I don’t think that science is gender specific. I enjoy working with both sexes as everybody brings something different to the table.

“The reason that pupils may not be as interested in science is the delivery of the subject. If science is taught in the right way, it can set a spark off in anyone. Science is never boring.”

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About The Author
Gail Dixon is the editor of – an online guide that offers advice on choosing a UK school

Visit the author's web site at:

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Fri Feb 19, 2010 8:09 am
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