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The Barbarians are at the Gate: Another Physics Department to Close

Link: BBC NEWS, Reading closes physics department.

This has been the subject of much debate behind the scenes over the weekend.

It falls in line with the problems experienced by other threatened subjects - notably Physics, Chemistry and Modern Languages.

These are, of course, the very same subjects in which UK State school numbers have plummeted.

It seems to me that - amidst all the promises we see from Government - we need to DO SOMETHING about the underlying problems that this story may reveal.

Some 18 months ago (5 February 2005), Terence Kealey wrote an interesting article in the Spectator entitled Science is for Posh kids

In it, Kealey suggested that the demise of selective state education meant that science was now largely the preserve of privately educated children.

According to Kealey:

  • "the Independent sector now supplies some 40 per cent of all pupils specialising in science and maths at A-level"
  • "Physics is now second only to the classics for public-school bias at the older universities"
  • "there has been a sad deterioration in the 'science' taught at comprehensives"
  • "Few children with double science at GCSE proceed to study hard science at A-level"
  • "Biology - innumerate, descriptive and girl's blousey"
  • "79 percent of physics teachers in independent schools were qualified in physics"
  • "in state schools the proportion with qualifications was less than a third"
  • "Two thirds of state-school teachers of physics GCSE have no relevant degree"
  • "the only people whose children get a good education in science are those who can afford to go completely private"
Well, the proposed closure at Reading may be the next chapter of that story.

1. Have a look at the Access data for various Universities.

83% of Reading's intake come from State schools - compared to, say, 77% at York and 57% at Cambridge.

2. State schools have seen a disproportionate fall in students taking Physics. As The Independent reported (11 August 2006)

"The number of A-level exam entries in the subject has halved since 1982, the research from the University of Buckingham found. Just over 3.8 percent of 16-year-olds took A-level physics in 2004 compared with about 6 per cent in 1990.

The decline has hit all types of schools but independent schools and academically selective grammar schools have been less affected than further-education colleges.

The proportion of A-level physics students who go on to study the subject at university has remained roughly constant, at 8 per cent, with a further 2 per cent studying related courses such as materials science or
astronomy."

3. Professor Smithers, Buckingham University, reports that those fewer candidates are actually producing more A grade outcomes.

"The steep decline in A-level entries has been partly offset by an increase in the pass rate from 75.9 per cent in 1990 to 94.2 per cent in 2005. Nevertheless, the number of passes in A-level physics fell by 23.0 per cent between 1990 and 2005. But the number of A-grades actually increased by 27.2 per cent - up from 6,323 in 1990 to 8,042 in 2005"

4. But research shows that Independent schools take a disproportionate number of those 8,000 A grades in Physics - some 3,600 of them (45%).

5. Physics is "hard". Very hard. As are Chemistry and Modern Languages. Durham University has shown as much. Physics at University is not therefore an obvious choice unless you've done reasonably well at A Level Physics - however much the subject may "appeal".

6. So, ... deep breath... contentious conclusion... if you can't attract significant numbers of independent school candidates to your campus, then you are unlikely to recruit enough scientists to sustain expensive departments...

7. It is of course possible that the regressive nature of top-up fees etc has acted to make these matters worse.

All very sad.

PS: For a more amusing, and even more erudite analysis of these issues, see the wonderful article by Boris Johnson - published in The Daily Telegraph on 24 Aug 2006: Civilisation is built on Physics (alas), not on Business Studies

PPS. You might also enjoy reading Sir, can we do something easier? by Emma Brockes in the Guardian, 17 Aug 2006.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

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