Making a difference where it matters
With COVID-19 further exposing educational divides, Jess Wade says the importance of physics teachers has never been more critical
As someone who works to improve the representation of women and people of colour in the community, I am often asked about the reasons for under-representation of certain groups in physics. This is a complex question that has been studied, discussed and written about a lot. The reasons are nuanced and various – gender discrimination is different to systemic racism, for example. But at a fundamental level, the answer is always the same: the quality of their physics teacher.
If you haven’t grown up in a family of physicists or engineers or haven’t got much “science capital”, the first time you will come across physics is via your secondary-school science teacher – an interaction that will likely dictate whether or not you continue with the subject. There is no shortage of anecdotes about the impact of an outstanding physics education. Julia Higgins, a former president of the Institute of Physics (IOP), once described her secondary-school physics teacher as “a revelation”, while astronomer and broadcaster Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Royal Society president Venki Ramakrishnan both credit their extraordinary careers to inspirational science and maths lessons.
Indeed, I have yet to meet a physics student or researcher who does not recognize the influence their teacher has had on them. I would even argue that physics teachers do more for physics – and society as a whole – than Nobel laureates. It is not easy to teach physics in an exciting and relevant way that communicates both the wonders and the technicalities of the subject. Good quality teachers are even more important if we are to entice students from under-represented backgrounds into physics.
After all, in 2008, when the IOP investigated the factors that influence Black and minority ethnic students’ likelihood to choose physics, it was found that the perceived difficulty of the subject or lack of role models were of little importance. What was significant was an enjoyment of physics, recognition of its relevance to everyday life and appreciation of career prospects. All of these “high-influence” factors come naturally from an inspiring and helpful teacher.
Addressing the shortage
Specialist teachers are therefore vital for the future of physics. Unfortunately, they are hard to come by. In 2017, for example, the Sutton Trust found that only half of those teaching physics in UK secondary schools have a relevant degree. With the demand for physics teachers far outweighing supply, their distribution across UK schools is unsurprisingly patchy. State schools and those with higher proportions of children on free school meals are the least likely to have teachers with a physics qualification. On the other hand, 91% of physics teachers in independent schools are specialists in their subject – with some 10% having PhDs.
Access to an education from a specialist science teacher is reflected in the demographics of young people who choose subjects like physics and further maths at A-level, and has been shown to be particularly important for students from groups that are historically underrepresented. In 2012 the IOP, which publishes Physics World, found that girls who attend single-sex, independent schools are considerably more likely to study physics at A-level than their counterparts at mixed state schools.
While this imbalance is partly due to reduced stereotyping in a single-sex environment, the fact is that girls at independent schools are simply more likely to be taught physics by someone who is passionately interested in the subject. Even as far back as the late-1800s, girls in independent schools were excelling in their scientific studies – they were being taught in well-equipped laboratories by overqualified teachers. Many of the teachers, however, were not permitted to formally graduate from university or become professional scientists because of society’s expectations of women.
If inequalities in physics teaching were exacerbated pre-pandemic, they are only going to accelerate following the impact of COVID-19. As independent schools spent the summer of 2020 investing in online platforms and keeping students engaged with virtual science clubs and guest speakers, 70% of children at state schools received either no lessons or only one online class per day (in any subject). As schools returned to face-to-face teaching this term, practical laboratory lessons have been adapted or cancelled altogether, which will leave a huge impact on students’ conceptual understanding and enjoyment of physics.
Science technicians, who are already overworked and underappreciated, are now being required to work around-the-clock to keep their classrooms COVID-safe. The increase in the number of teachers forced to self-isolate will be felt particularly acutely in physics classrooms, where it is likely that no-one in the school will be able to cover – placing an overwhelming demand on physics supply teachers. Science departments with big budgets, small class sizes and the flexibility to move online will weather this storm, further driving the physics education divide.
You might wonder why the UK has such a shortage of skills specialist physics teachers. Physicists are some of the most employable university graduates, and are highly sought after in areas such as research, finance, policy, engineering, medicine and gaming. Teacher salaries in the UK are well below the international average and, unlike most other countries, class sizes are increasing. In response, the UK’s Department for Education and the IOP offer physics graduates cash bonuses to train as teachers as well as juiced-up salaries. But of course, very few teachers would say they become teachers for the money. After all, in countries where teachers are respected – and where their insight and the importance of physics education are valued and where the economic impact of a science-minded population is recognized – such shortages do not exist.
In a year that has taught us – more than ever before – the importance of having a scientifically literate society, it is about time we started investing in and respecting our science teachers. It is only then that we will begin to close the divide.