Physics fails to illuminate Blackpool’s students

With only five students from Blackpool’s eight schools sitting physics A-level exams in 2008, the Institute of Physics (IOP) describes the north-western town as a ‘microcosm’ of the big problem that physics faces nationally.

In a public note to policy-makers published today, Tuesday 6 July 2010, the Institute of Physics (IOP) warns that students are going to be denied the cultural entitlement of studying physics if efforts to recruit more specialist physics teachers are not kept on track.

Physics, the fundamental scientific study of all the matter that surrounds us, is not just an intellectual luxury; it is the subject which will underpin our technological fight against society’s biggest challenges, from climate change and energy security to our flagging national economy.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, president of IOP, said, “The place of physics within the education system needs to be strengthened if the UK is to successfully train a new generation of physicists and engineers who can contribute to every sector of our economy.”

Starting from a poor base – 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, rather than chemistry or biology) and more than 500 schools not sending any pupils at all on to study A-level physics – special efforts are required.

With strong correlations between specialist physics teaching and uptake of physics A-level, IOP argues the key to maintaining a strong physics base in the UK is to ensure a steady supply of well-trained physics teachers.

It is estimated however that the UK would need more than 700 new physics teachers every year just to stand still. In reality, fewer than 400 are recruited, and half have left after four years in the profession.

Projects like the Stimulating Physics Network are aimed at remedying this by working with non-specialist teachers to reinvigorate the culture of physics in schools where there is a shortage of specialist teachers.

IOP recommends that there should be a requirement on subject knowledge for teachers of physics; a process to measure the number of qualified specialist teachers in the system and entering or leaving it each year; and, in the long term, at least one specialist physics teacher per school.

To see the note in full, please go to