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

22 August 2016

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 third year in a row.

The number of NI physics students has dropped by almost 8% from 1532 in 2015 to 1414 in 2016. Overall since 2013 the numbers taking the subject have declined by 10%. This is in contrast with yesterday’s announcement of the Leaving Certificate results which has physics numbers increasing by over 20% in the same period. In the UK as a whole the numbers taking physics have decreased by 2.6%.

On a more positive note the proportion of girls taking the subject has increased slightly although they still only make up just 27% of the cohort studying the subject at A-level though this is significantly better than the situation across the UK as a whole where they only comprise 21.6%.

Dr Mark Lang, Chair of the Institute of Physics in Ireland commented,
In Northern Ireland, around half of schools don’t have any students studying the subject at all.” He noted that the IOP had recently called on the new Northern Ireland Executive to conduct a review to identify and tackle the barriers to physics becoming a realistic option to pursue at A-level for all students. He also suggested that ‘the government review the primary curriculum and explore ways to re-introduce a separate science subject into primary schools’.

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 Lang noted that any increase in activity in this area requires people with the critical skills from physics.

Commenting on the continued gender imbalance of the entrants, he 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 this page.