Disappointing drop in N. Ireland physics numbers at A-Level

14 August 2015

As students across the UK receive their A-level results the Institute of Physics in Ireland has expressed concern that in Northern Ireland the number of students taking physics at A-level has dropped for the second year in a row.


The number of NI physics students has dropped from 1549 in 2014 to 1532 in 2015. Overall since 2013 the numbers taking the subject have declined by nearly 3%. This is in contrast with yesterday’s announcement of the Leaving Certificate results which has physics numbers increase by over 16% in the same period. In the UK as a whole the numbers taking physics have decreased slightly by just over 1% although this follows eight consecutive years of significant rises.

On a more positive note the numbers of girls taking the subject has increased by 2% although they still only make up just over a quarter of the cohort studying the subject at A-level. Northern Ireland has traditionally had a better female uptake of physics compared with the rest of the UK. In 2012 girls made up 31% of the physics cohort compared with under 20% in the UK. This year, the N. Ireland female proportion is at 26% compared with 21% in the UK as a whole.

Dr Liz Conlon, Education Advisor with the Institute of Physics commented,
“In England, the IOP, working in partnership with the government, through its Stimulating Physics Network has brought about an almost 20% rise in the number of physics A-level candidates over the past five years and physics is now in the top 10 most popular subjects on offer at A-level. In contrast In Northern Ireland, around half of schools don’t have any students studying the subject at all.”

A recent report from the Institute of Physics noted that businesses that are critically dependent on physics contribute 8.8% of Northern Ireland’s economic output – more than £1.5 bn – and employ nearly 27,000 people. Dr Conlon noted than any increase in activity in this area requires people with the critical skills from physics.

Commenting on the continued gender imbalance of the entrants, she continued:  “To have girls making up only a quarter of the A-level physics cohort is a real loss to society, and, more importantly, we can be sure that there are thousands of highly able girls in Ireland who are missing valuable opportunities.”

Recently the Institute has produced a range of reports which examine the factors which influence the female uptake of physics.

Research has shown that:
• Students’ interest in science declines as they progress through school, and the decline appears to become steeper after age 14, particularly for girls, and particularly in physics.
• Girls, more than boys, experience a difference between their personal goals for learning and the learning objectives of the physics curriculum. As a consequence they are less inclined to opt for physics, even if they achieve high grades and enjoy the subject.

The key influences on students’ attitudes to physics have been identified as:

• Self-concept – that is, students’ sense of themselves in relation to the subject, the value they place on the subject and their willingness to engage with it;
• Views of physics – that is, how students experience physics at school;
• Teacher-student relationships – that is, how personally supportive students find their physics teacher.

For more information on supporting girls into physics see: