Parliamentary push for specialist physics teachers

A selection of cross-party MPs has joined the Institute of Physics (IOP) in its aim to ensure all school students in the UK have access to high-quality physics teaching.

After submitting a parliamentary question to the Department for Education and the introduction of an Early Day Motion on the issue of too few specialist physics teachers, IOP is raising the profile among MPs of the severe threat to the health of physics that the shortage poses.

Early Day Motion 467, tabled by Nic Dakin, Julian Huppert and Peter Bottomley, ‘expresses [the House’s] concern at the lack of specialist physics teachers and the consequent drastic drop in the number of entrants to physics A-level, recognises the threat this poses to physics and engineering and therefore to the UK economy, and calls for greater incentives to attract physics graduates into teaching in order to create access to high-quality physics teaching for every child.’

The EDM has attracted 24 MPs’ signatures from Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs.

The Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb MP, has now responded to a written parliamentary question, submitted by Andrew Smith MP, requesting a commitment to the recruitment of specialist physics teachers.

In response to a request for a departmental statement on incentives for the recruitment of specialist physics teachers, Nick Gibb accepts “that there is a continuing need to increase the number of physics teachers.”

The answer states, “It is our policy intention to attract more physics and other science graduates into the profession.  We are therefore reviewing the routes into teaching and the incentives offered to well qualified people who want to teach physics or one of the other science disciplines.

“We are considering a scheme to repay the students loans of science and mathematics teachers.  We have also announced plans to double the number of participants in the successful scheme Teach First so that more schools may benefit from the talents of the country’s best graduates.  Three-quarters of Teach First participants teach the most demanding shortage subjects, including science.  Further initiatives will be announced when we are in a position to do so.”

Dr Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive at IOP, has responded, “We are pleased that the Department recognises the need to recruit more specialist physics teachers.

“However with one in four 11-16 schools in England lacking a specialist physics teacher – a science teacher with expert subject knowledge and enthusiasm for physics – and more than 500 schools not sending any pupils at all on to study A-level physics, a concerted efforts is required and there is no time to wait for future initiatives.

“Of particular concern is whether this Government aspires to the target, set in 2004, of having 35 000 students sit physics A level each year by 2014.  This is a crucial target to meet employer demands and help recover our flagging economy.  The target of 35 000 has been a strong catalyst for action up to now and we sincerely hope this will continue to operate in future.

“Schemes like Teach First are very admirable initiatives, but they are not enough on their own to fill the gaping hole that exists in the science teaching workforce.  Over the last twenty years, we needed 700 new physics teachers a year to maintain numbers.  The figure has been more like 400 -and we now need to aim for 1000 a year to provide young people with the study and career opportunities to which they are entitled.

“There are tried and tested mechanisms that involve, for example, enhancing physics subject knowledge among experienced science teachers who are not physics specialists.  We are keen to work with the Government to make sure programmes are in place to hit the 2014 target.”