What’s wrong with Welsh physics: part 2

Last week I published a post showing that the broad under-performance at A-level seen in Wales is significantly amplified in physics. This week I’m going to look at one of the factors that could be a driver in that under-performance – specifically, the number of girls continuing to study physics at A-level.

It has long been the case that girls do better (on average) than boys in A-level physics. Just take a look at the plot below, showing the UK-wide grade breakdown for boys and girls in physics A-level from 2010–14.

Unfortunately, in Wales we have not emulated the rest of the UK’s upward trend in the uptake of A-level physics among girls. The plot below shows normalised numbers for the number of students taking physics A-level in Wales, and across the UK. I use 2001 as the normalisation year.

These are very small numbers, but even with that in mind it’s clear that the trend for boys in Wales has followed the positive trajectory of the rest of the UK, but for girls has essentially levelled out at its 2004 low. To put it another way, in 2001 girls made up 25% of the physics A-level cohort in Wales; by 2015 that number was down to 20%.

The reasons for this difference are difficult to pinpoint. We know more girls progress to physics in single-sex schools, and schools in Wales are more usually co-educational, but this wouldn’t explain the difference in trajectory of the numbers. The Institute of Physics has produced a wealth of reports on the gender divide in physics, which look at this subject in great detail. Statistics like those above provide an insight into why it is important that we address this divide if we are to have a sufficiently skilled and healthily diverse STEM workforce in the future.

All the statistics used in this report are available on request from physics@iopwales.org.

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