A physics teacher in every school

by Peter Main, Director of Education & Science at the Institute of Physics (IOP)

With a shortage of more than 4000 physics teachers across England, we are in the midst of nothing less than a national education crisis, with no end in sight, (p106). Drives to recruit more physics graduates into teaching have borne some success but as my colleague, Chris Shepherd, has pointed out, the recruitment rate is “like a bath with the plug out and the taps only half on.”

Since all three scientific disciplines are taught in schools, one might expect that one third of all science teachers should be physics teachers.  School students should not be getting their first taste of physics from a biology graduate who last studied the subject at the same age as them.

Here at the Institute of Physics, we have calculated that 1000 new physics teachers are needed each year for the next 15 years to bring the number of physics teachers up to level of chemistry and biology teachers.  But, for more than 2 decades,  even in good years, only about 600 new physics teachers are entering the profession annually, which is not only well below the 1000, it is also below the break even number . And, if the proposals in the recent White Paper are accepted, restricting PGCE funding to students with 1st and 2nd class degrees, we will lose another 100.

The situation has been getting worse for a very long time. Of the schools in the state sector that send students off to do A-levels, 500 do not send anyone at all to take physics and a similar number only send one or two each year.

We want to see the Government address this problem with conviction through national policies that will entice physics graduates into teaching and, importantly, give head teachers the impetus and power to attract physicists into their classrooms.   We would like every school to have at least one specialist physics teacher; a modest target but one that currently looks very remote.

As the National Audit Office’s recent report, ‘Educating the next generation of scientists’, showed, uptake of science subjects post-16 has increased but the increases in physics lag far behind increases in chemistry and biology.

One clear cause for the slower increase in the uptake of physics post-16 is the shortage of specialist physics teachers which, as Smithers and Robinson have reported in their reports on physics teaching, has a clear effect on the quality of teaching provision, which is hardly a surprise.

With physics graduates in high demand across a range of sectors – from lucrative financial services, telecommunications, computing and IT, to fulfilling careers in academic research – it is no wonder that there are too few physics graduates in teaching.  It is in any case too tall an order to ask more than one third of the UK’s total of physics graduates – just under 3000 graduated in 2009 with a first degree in physics – to enter into teaching.

Much more could and should be done to entice a greater number of physics graduates into teaching. First, we have discovered that 180 physics graduates were turned away from teaching in 2009. We need to understand why; such profligacy with a valuable resource cannot be accepted. Second, we need to look at barriers to recruitment into teacher training; most providers have two biology tutors for every physics one – no wonder they recruit more biologists. Third, and most important, we need to move to separate targets for the three sciences for teacher trainers. Currently the targets are just for science teachers, and we can see the result of that (p77).

Over the last few years, a quarter of the physics graduates that entered teaching, and almost all the engineering ones that did, chose to teach mathematics. To most physicists or engineers, mathematics is second nature, whereas biology might as well be from Mars, so many potential entrants are deterred by the possibility of having  to cover other sciences up to GCSE. So, what stops us training teachers to teach maths and physics together? The answer is nothing – such courses exist – but, after qualification, management barriers in schools more or less rule it out as a teaching option. Perhaps if the three separate sciences were considered more as disciplines in their own right, instead of being part of some amorphous “science” subject, the pairing of physics with mathematics might seem more appealing to school management teams.

We are already working with regional Science Learning Centres to provide professional development to non-specialist physics teachers and, through our government-funded Stimulating Physics Network, we are having an impact.

As part of our Network, our Teacher Learning Coordinators are spread across the country, visiting schools where we feel we can make a difference and working with physics teachers, particularly the non-specialists, to improve their knowledge and, above all, their confidence and enthusiasm for the subject. Of course, whether the project survives the cuts, we have to wait and see.

Physics is a strategically important subject that underpins much of engineering and other science subjects. If it is not introduced to youngsters by well-versed, confident and inspiring teachers, enormous potential will be wasted.  The Government needs to recognise this waste and take urgent action.

For example, it could insist that each school employs at least one specialist in each of the science subjects; a measure which would force the hand of head teachers and drive the creation of a labour market as science teachers see opportunities open to them if they obtain the right professional training to teach physics. Head teachers should not be allowed to dodge the issue and the concern of supply can be at least partly overcome by equipping biologists and chemists with the skills to teach physics.

Such measures may be more important in the regime envisaged by the 2010 White Paper, where schools have so much more freedom to make decisions. With the problems surrounding physics teacher recruitment and the perception that physics is a difficult subject, we need to ensure that schools don’t make decisions based on their parochial, self-interest but against the national needs.

But, as well as taking a ‘stick’ to schools, there must also be a bigger ‘carrot’ to attract teaching candidates.  In opposition, the Government made a pledge to pay off the student loans of physics graduates who opt to teach.

This idea has also found its way into the White Paper and it would be good to see it adopted; not only might it attract more students, it would also help retention.

The Institute is working on a whole range of schemes to attract more people into physics teaching, working with Government and the Training and Development Agency. While the situation is desperate, there is plenty that can be done.

This blog post was first published on The Science Vote, a blog run by the Campaign for Science & Engineering