Welcome rise in Leaving Certificate Physics

22 August 2016

Continued increase in physics numbers but significant gender imbalance and almost a quarter of schools still not offering physics at leaving cert level.

As the State Examinations Commission releases the results for the 2016 Leaving Certificate, the Institute of Physics (IOP) has welcomed the significant increase in the number of students having taken the physics course.

The number of students has risen by 3% from 7508 in 2015 to 7752 in 2016, representing 13.3% of the total leaving certificate cohort of 58466 (up  slightly from 13% last year). The figures are an indication that the increased demand at third level for science and engineering over the past couple of years is filtering down into school level and confirms the upward trend noted last year. Numbers taking physics are now 22% higher than in 2012.

IOP has put significant resources into providing support for the teaching of physics through its teacher networks and also in the provision of accurate and engaging careers materials, and had noted a distinct increase in the demand for such material over the past couple of years.

However concern has been expressed that almost a quarter of second-level schools across Ireland are not offering physics at Leaving Certificate level.

Dr Mark Lang, Chair of the Institute of Physics in Ireland said: “Not only is physics a fascinating subject, qualifications in this area give students a real edge in competition for highly-sought after careers. To deny thousands of students right across Ireland the chance to study this highly valued subject runs counter to all government efforts to increase the uptake of physical sciences at third level which are seen as critical to the country’s economy.”

He noted: “Physics-based businesses contribute more than €7bn annually to the Irish economy and directly employ more than 86,000. Physics-skilled workers such as software developers, energy technicians and medical device researchers have helped to drive the Irish economy forward.
Businesses in areas such as IT services, renewable energy and medical instrumentation, all of which rely on a strong physics research base, attract significant inward investment.

In order to achieve a lasting turn around in the numbers taking physics, significant support must be given to schools who are under pressure to drop physics altogether as once the subject is gone from the school it is exceptionally difficult to bring it back.”

In England, the IOP, working in partnership with the government, through its Stimulating Physics Network has given significant bespoke support to the professional development of teachers of physics. Given that around two thirds of Junior Science teachers in Ireland do not have a background in physics it is essential to give teachers the training and tools to increase their confidence in teaching physics.

Commenting on the gender of the physics entrants, he continued:  “The uptake of physics by girls in Ireland remains stubbornly low at school level with only about 25% of the Leaving Certificate cohort being female. This imbalance continues through all levels of study and into the wider workplace, representing a significant loss of science capital to the country and, on an individual level, indicating that many women are not fulfilling their potential in this area.”

 

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.

Similar statistics to those in Ireland have been witnessed in the United Kingdom (UK). In 2014, the Institute of Physics (IOP) set out to improve these numbers in the UK by working intensively with six schools in London, in a project which aimed to encourage more girls to choose to take A-level physics. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of girls choosing to take physics in the six schools increased from 12 girls to 52 girls, changing the representation of females in these classrooms from 10% to 27%. The Improving Gender Balance project has now been extended to Scotland and IOP are seeking funding from SFI to bring it on a pilot basis to Ireland.

For more information on supporting girls into physics see this page.