Physics takes off, slowly

August 22, 1997

After seven years of absolute decline, the number of students taking A-level physics rose for the first time this year - but only just.

Following year-on-year drops that have seen numbers taking physics plummet from 46,786 in 1989 to just 33,003 last year, provisional figures for physics entrants were up this year by 2.2 per cent.

But it was not the scale of turnaround those in physics, or science generally, were hoping to see. While the number of A-level students rose by 5.2 per cent to 776,115, the rise in those taking A level sciences, including maths, but excluding psychology and computing, was 4.8 per cent, a relative decline.

But the picture was better than last year, when an overall increase in entries of 1.2 per cent compared with an increase in science entries of just 0.5 per cent, less than half the overall rate of increase.

A spokeswoman for the Institute of Physics welcomed the real terms increase in physics entrants, but urged caution. "We feel this might be a bottoming out in the gradual decline, but it will take more than one year to show us what is happening."

She added that the institute's plan to spend Pounds 500,000 reassessing the 16-to-19 physics curriculum was still needed, particularly as the number of girls taking physics appeared not to have increased. "Some of the reasons why it is thought people like psychology and biology is because they say it is something they can relate to," the spokeswoman said.

"There is no reason why we cannot bring some of that into physics, presenting our subject differently so it has more personal appeal. Girls, in particular like to see the relevance of their subject to the world in which they live."

Jonathon Ling, honorary secretary of the Association of Science Education, said the fact physics entrants had gone up for the first time in seven years was important, but added: "It is so small we must not be complacent. We did expect an increase but hoped it would be more than this."

He said the expected increase was because this year's cohort of 18-year-olds were the first to follow the national curriculum through school. With the introduction of the national curriculum, Mr Ling said there was a tendency for physics to have a greater show at GCSE level, where biology and chemistry had tended to dominate before. He said the shortage of maths and physics specialists in schools, which resulted in some teachers for whom these were not first subjects instructing students, affected student A-level choice.

In maths, after years of decline, a jump in the number of entries in 1996 (a 8.4 per cent increase) was consolidated this year, with entrants up 2.5 per cent on last year.

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