Like many in education, I read the comments this week by the social mobility commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh with some dismay. She told a parliamentary select committee that she thought girls are put off physics because it involved “a lot of hard maths” and this was “a natural thing” for girls.
Three of my four A-levels are in physics, maths and further maths and this set of transferrable skills has equipped me with a formidable skillset as a leader. The ability, training and discipline to tackle hard problems and the assuredness that outstanding quantitative confidence brings should not be under-estimated.
And looking around our school, I see a cohort of girls who love nothing more than “hard” maths. It’s great.
From our perspective as a girls’ school, our students need no further encouragement to take physics. Our students choose subjects they love, at which they shine and in which they find a deep interest and will be challenged with complex and often abstract concepts.
“Physics, maths and further maths have equipped me with a formidable skillset as a leader.”
But I can imagine that in other environments, the lazy rhetoric of stereotyping doesn’t help. “Physics is a male-dominated subject”, “physics is hard”, “physics is maths in disguise” … one of the joys of working in an all-girls environment is that these stereotypes play no part in our daily lives.
As educationalists we also have a responsibility to open our students’ eyes to career possibilities. Without those opportunities, it’s hard to know what a physicist “does” and this can be unnerving in an educational system that runs along tight tramlines of qualifications … that step into the unknown in a subject where you’re not quite sure where it might lead requires courage and confidence.
But rather than fixating on why girls might not want to do physics, let’s look at the reasons they do – after all, 23 per cent of entries nationally are from girls.
“We have a responsibility to open our students’ eyes to career possibilities.”
As a scientist myself, it is obvious to me: because it’s great! Physics spans an incredible breadth of aptitudes. It is for deep and nimble thinkers, for those who are truly excited by the abstract and by pushing the boundaries of the known universe.
Does it get much more adventurous than that? Yet physics also is for logical thinkers, for analysts, for those who grasp a concept and can follow it systematically to an outcome. It’s for those who can build a hypothesis, apply knowledge they already have, evaluate the evidence they gather and reach a conclusion. And for those who love the power of numbers. What an incredible set of transformative skills to garner in one subject.
“That step into the unknown in a subject where you’re not quite sure where it might lead requires courage and confidence.”
But how do we explain why nationally maths is so much more popular than physics among girls at A-level? My guess is that perhaps it feels a safer option – many people are taking it and it seems less “niche”. Of course I can’t speak for girls and schools across the country.
I understand that not every student is going to be thrilled by the sciences, so at JAGS, our focus is on providing a supportive environment where our students are encouraged to choose the subjects they love and at which they will excel.
“Not every student is going to be thrilled by the sciences.”
For some of our students, an arts/humanities route is the obvious choice, for others it will be STEM and for others an exciting combination with the freedom to merge science with the arts.
Whatever their choice, they’ll be supported by exciting, interactive and inspirational teaching that may well unlock a lifetime of future interest. It’s important we emphasise that STEM A-levels are not for everyone, just as humanities are not. The confidence to choose the path that is most appropriate for that individual is of huge importance. We have great strength across all areas, and students who thrive on their personalised choices.
One of the highlights of last term was our A-level physics students scaling the Brecon Beacons with three dedicated members of staff to collect data for their Muon project. And if the search for elementary particles is not a reason to embark on an A-level subject, I don’t know what is.