So what’s wrong with Welsh physics?

You’ll have seen in Tom Allen’s previous posts that we’re going to be sharing plenty of data through this platform. In Wales we have particular concerns about pupil performance and progression in a nation that has some of the most profound socio-economic problems in the UK.

Wales’s lacklustre performance in the OECD PISA tests, as well as underperformance at GCSE and A-level in comparison to our UK neighbours, has been an ongoing problem for the nation and a thorn in the side of the Welsh Government.

The Welsh education system is now taking a different path to England. Leighton Andrews and Michael Gove were never going to be exchanging Christmas cards, and their differing worldviews were reflected in their approach to education. It was under their respective leadership that Wales and England parted ways in the qualifications arena. Soon we won’t be able to make direct comparisons across the border as examinations will be different, so it is a good time to reflect on recent performance.

Below you can see the percentage offset for grade achievement for Wales vs the whole of the UK (the difference in percentage of the cohort achieving each grade). This graph uses the aggregated 2010–14 results sets from the JCQ. On the left is the offset across all subjects, while physics-specific data is on the right. Broad underperformance in Wales (especially in A*/A achievement) is significantly amplified in physics.


Despite faring worse in A-levels, Welsh students don’t appear to perform significantly worse than their UK counterparts in progression to university. Comparing UCAS numbers for Welsh domiciled applicants to physics courses reveals equivalent acceptance rates for Welsh students at their main choices, and slightly higher acceptance rates when you factor in clearance places. There are a few possible explanations of this: less ambitious university applications from Welsh students, better targeted applications, or more realistic predicted grades may all factor in.

So what’s wrong with Welsh physics? We could speculate on causes but the answer is almost certainly a complicated mix of factors. The IOP is taking important steps to support excellence in physics teaching in Wales, and with Welsh Government support we are running the Stimulating Physics Network in Wales at 48 Welsh schools this academic year. In the short term there is no magic fix for these problems, but through schemes like this we can offer support to those who are teaching the subject and begin to redress some of the issues facing Welsh physics.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this data in the comments. How do people anticipate the new qualifications offering in Wales affecting the patterns highlighted above? And what, if anything, can be done to redress the imbalance?

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6 thoughts on “So what’s wrong with Welsh physics?

  1. Perhaps it is time the Welsh educational establishment did start taking note of Michael Gove? He might not be especially likeable (although Secretaries of State for Education generally wear unpopularity as a badge of honour), but he does clearly value ‘traditional’ subjects such as maths and physics. The IOP must fight to maintain the profile of these subjects against attacks from those who think that serious study is not worth the effort, or too hard too teach.

    I had thought that Wales valued tradition and academic seriousness in many ways, not least as it proudly promotes its own language, but perhaps this has not crossed into all areas.

    Surely being beaten by the English at maths is not something of which any Welsh person could be proud?!

  2. I think it is important to realise that drops in Welsh performance may not be due to decisions made in Wales. For example (and I would like to be able to explore data to test this) if decisions by Gove and his successors had a greater detrimental effect on lower-income and deprived families and areas, then that would disproportionately damage Welsh education. In which case, the best thing to do would be reverse everything imposed in recent years and things will improve again!

    Of course, that is overly simplistic, but the emerging evidence from England (where I do most of my work) is that the impact of family wealth is significant, and current and recent governmental policies have tended to increase that effect not decrease it. Wales needs to find an approach that reverses that effect (as does England, of course, but the effect is more pronounced in Wales due to its different demographic).

  3. The Welsh Government certainly isn’t helping with cuts to the budget of Techniquest! I hope the IOP will be pushing for funding to be restored or maintained before we lose a great national asset.

  4. My son was not allowed to study Physics nor Chemistry at higher level at GCSE because he was not very good at Biology. He was doing the 3 sciences separately and was particularly good at Physics. He was therefore prevented from reaching his potential in Physics purely for the benefit of the school’s statistics. As he was not allowed to sit the higher level GCSE Physics, he was then not allowed to do A level Physics, which is what he really wanted to do. It doesn’t make sense that children are not allowed to do the higher tier in the subjects they are good at and lower tier in those they are weak in.
    The league table system is destroying our children’s education because the schools are more concerned about their results in the league table than what is best for the pupils. ie. they would rather have 3 passes at lower tier, than 2 passes and a fail at higher tier.
    In addition, schools are not interested in children who do not intend to go on to University. I suspect this is because the schools receive some sort of financial incentive/bonus for children who go on to Higher Education. We need to stop treating our education system as a business and start focussing on providing the best education possible to ALL students.

    • Hi Helen, that’s a story which unfortunately we hear too often. We’re glad that the system in Wales will change next year so the way that schools report their performance measures will change, but there is still a risk that some try to game the system.

      You can see The Institute’s response to the 2014 Welsh consultation on how schools report their performance here

      It is worth making your school governors aware that this happened, and you could even write to your local MP/AM to highlight the problem.

  5. I retired from teaching physics in Wales last year. I ran the physics department at Monmouth School where the subject was popular and successful, at IGCSE and A level. Significant numbers of pupils went on to study physical sciences and engineering at UK and overseas universities, including ‘Oxbridge’ and MIT. This is not intended as a boast but some reassurance that a few pupils in Wales do really well in physics and the rest must therefore have the potential as well, if we can find a way to unlock it.

    I suspect that no one will be interested how we did it (no one ever visited me to ask in 32 years anyway) because it will be simply put down to money and privilege. However, something about my school, that might surprise some, is that in the last two decades we have been academically non-selective in our intake. Yes, the parents pay but intelligence and wealth don’t necessarily correlate, believe me. (The joke is that the pupils are merely fiscally gifted.) Instead, the pupils possessed ambition and self-confidence, doubtless in part, driven by family background. At AS/A level, the international nature of classes also broadened horizons; indigenous pupils sharpened their act when competing with Koreans, Chinese, Nigerians etc.

    Unfortunately and rather tellingly, few pupils saw their future in Wales. They always applied for English, Scottish or overseas universities, feeling (however inaccurately) that Wales was a nation more focused on culture and language than technology and commerce. As such they may not return, which perpetuates the problem.

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