Sixth Forms Without Physics or Maths, part 3: Gender effects

This post is all about school sixth forms where no girls or no boys are entered for physics A-level. All of the tables below are taken directly from our recent report, which is primarily about school sixth forms with no entries at all to A-level physics.

Only around 20% of A-level physics entrants are girls, and this figure has been more or less constant for the past 30 years. Previous work by the IOP and others has looked at the challenges surrounding progression to A-level physics experienced by girls, and how we might start to counter them. With these challenges in mind, I was expecting to observe some differences between the number of school sixth forms with no girls entered for A-level physics, and the number with no entries for boys.

Sadly, the data supported these expectations: 19% (474) of school sixth forms with girls in attendance have no entries to AS- or A-level physics from girls, almost double the equivalent 10.1% for boys.

But these differences really become significant when we look at the size of these sixth forms. Tables 4 and 5 show data on sixth forms’ physics and maths entries grouped by schools’ A-level cohort size, for girls and boys respectively. These tables show how there are many more school sixth forms in the four largest size quintiles that have no entries from girls than there are that have no entries from boys. For schools in the middle quintile, for example, more than 10% of schools with girls in attendance had no entries by girls for AS- or A-level physics, compared to an equivalent 1.7% for boys.

Overall, many more girls (more than 14,000) than boys (fewer than 3,000) studied at a school sixth form where no one of their gender studies physics.

Looking at these figures, I’m interested in how this may be affecting overall physics uptake by girls. Students – and maybe even girls in particular – could well be dissuaded from studying AS-level or A-level physics thanks to no-one else of their gender from their year group also progressing. And perhaps this effect builds and/or reinforces a culture where successive year groups have no entries from a specific gender. More research is needed to build a full understanding of the mechanisms at play here.

Quintile one contains the smallest school sixth forms, and quintile five the largest.


Earlier work by the IOP has suggested that girls in single-sex schools are more likely to study physics than those in mixed sex schools, so it might be tempting to assume that single-sex schooling is the answer. We can see in Table 6 that single-sex girls’ schools are less likely to have no entries to AS- or A-level physics than mixed. But the physics culture in single sex girls’ schools is clearly not always positive: seven of the top 10 largest school sixth forms with no entries to physics were single-sex girls’ schools.


Use of the large government data sets will surely be crucial to fully understanding, and beginning to counter, the longstanding gender imbalances that exist in physics participation at A-level. This would be a great opportunity for you to suggest what you think we have learned from the existing work in this area, and what the next analyses need to focus on.

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One thought on “Sixth Forms Without Physics or Maths, part 3: Gender effects

  1. Hi Tom,

    This is a great article however it does not come as a surprise.

    I’m a father of a 5-years old girl and the most challenging aspect is to counter balance a society, a community and the school that promotes a gender divide from such young age. To the extent that even the success are short lived because my baby girl comes home and she feels left out because – ‘none of the other girls know / does that, daddy’.

    There is a lot more schools and everyone needs to do the break gender segregation.


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