Campaign to increase students taking maths and physics A-level

MP Elizabeth Truss is backing a campaign to improve pupils’ perceptions of maths and physics, because they are putting them off studying the subjects after GCSEs.

When teenagers were asked about their views on maths and physics in a focus group run by the DfE, the words they used were ‘male’, ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant’, the Telegraph reports. Tackling these misperceptions is the focus of a new campaign that’s being launched by Education Minister Elizabeth Truss and Chancellor George Osborne.

Underlying the campaign is the fact that half of all UK co-educational state schools have no girls studying physics at A-level and only 2% of girls studying A-levels opt to take the subject. Compared to other countries, the proportion of pupils taking these subjects is low; only 13% of students study maths at A-level, compared to 85% of students in Japan and 70% in Taiwan taking an equivalent qualification.

The new campaign, Your Life, wants to see an increase of 50% in the number of students studying physics and maths within three years, and one way of doing this is tackling the misconception that the subjects are ‘irrelevant’. It is doing this by highlighting career paths, earning potential and the link between these subjects and entrepreneurship. “We want to get the message across that if students want a successful career in business or want to be an entrepreneur, then maths and science can help,” Ms. Truss said. “People in careers that involve science and technology often earn 20% more than people in different sectors, but that message isn’t getting through to pupils making their A-level choices. We want to make it a lot clearer.”

Are you aware of teenagers’ mistaken ideas about maths and physics? Will this campaign help?

8 thoughts on “Campaign to increase students taking maths and physics A-level

  1. The problem with a physics degree is that there are few jobs in PHYSICS. My son is in his first year of a physics degree but is finding it hard to motivate himself because he feels there will be no job for him at the end. I was rather dismayed to discover, when we were looking round physics departments, that around half of physics graduates end up as accountants. When you’re studying physics because you’re interested in physics itself and not particularly interested in money, that’s a depressing thought.

  2. Without physics and maths students we would have no internet, no mobile phones, no iPads, no X rays or scanners… need I go on.

    It is vital that primary and secondary school teachers explain and demonstrate how much fun maths and physics …and chemistry can be and how creative it can be.

    It all starts with encouraging good teachers in primary and secondary schools lower levels not with endless paperwork for them!!

    Councillor Mike Allen


  3. I think the campaign is unambitious, but that it Wil be a flop, because the real problem hasn’t been identified. The real problem with our entire flagging education system hasn’t been identified either, at least, not by government, the present one or previous ones. If there had been a penetrating analysis of the real issues underlying underachievement, and an intelligent approach had been taken to resolving them, we’d have taken relevant steps, as a nation, to doing so, to the benefit of the entire school population and society as a whole.

    The “blind man’s buff” approach of successive governments has tried to mask the fact that most school students resent the intimidating attitude of a large proportion of teachers in their attempts to achieve a classroom environment in which teaching and learning can take place. While the goal is admirable, the methods used are counter-productive in that they build resentment and, eventually, hostility towards education itself. The effectiveness in achieving quiet in the classroom of the most aggressive teachers, places them in the position of being the most obvious candidates for promotion, which perpetuates the cycle of “firm discipline” (aggressive challenging of inappropriate behaviour), creates a school ethos which inclines students to display contempt towards less or non-aggressive teachers, and also perpetuates the myth that it’s the students’ responsibility to behave well and study diligently, even when they feel undermined, disrespected and vulnerable, and that they are to blame for choosing to protect themselves from hostility. Anyone who has witnessed a student being shouted down by a teacher in a school corridor will know what I’m referring to – it has happened in most of the many secondary schools I’ve taught in. “Look at me while I’m talking to you! Take your hands out of your pockets! Stand up straight! How DARE you speak to me like that? Don’t you EVER let me see you treat a member of staff like that again!”

    Would YOU like it, being shouted at like this?

    Now compound this with Maths and Physics teachers using students’ vulnerability to fear of failure, in subjects which thrive on clarity of thought, as part of their arsenal control techniques. It presents them with the ideal opportunity to “get one over” on the students who present the greatest challenges to classroom discipline. Intellectual ridicule on its own is a powerful demotivator; combined with malaise brought on by teachers’ disrespectful attitude towards their students, the students have no option in terms of their own psychological survival but to reject those subjects which cause them the most discomfort: Maths and Physics. Lacking self-confidence and, like government, the insight, analytical skills and linguistic facility to express this succinctly, they do their best by describing the subjects as boring.

    Before I get accused of being unrealistic and taking sides with students, I maintain that it’s teachers’ job as adults to set the example of respect, rather than the other way round. Rather than trying to get one over on their students, teachers should be seeking ways of winning over their students. Retired, I write from the perspective of having taught both Maths and Physics, and having inspired girls as well as boys to pursue them to career level.

    Anything is possible when you approach people with love and respect; and it’s possible to kill almost anything when you have the opposite approach. Anyone who sees any light of hope in what I’m saying will find Success Parenting at interesting to look at. It’s a bit make-do at the moment as it’s still at the design stage really, but there are materials due to be launched in the next few days which achieve what Elizabeth Truss is looking for and much more.

  4. Many journalists do not help matters. Being literary based, they are largely ignorant of the place of Mathematics in hard science. They assumed higher mathematics to be about “Larger Arithmetical Sums”. (The art work surrounding your article reinforces this!)

    And science teachers don’t help either. Too many students are taught Maths and Physics by generic science teachers who have specialised in Biology to roughly O-level. A quote from a “Physics” teacher teaching my child: “The trouble with you Physicists is that you answer a question with an equation”; demonstrating to me that non degree Biologists are not aware of the place of Mathematics in hard science. Today a Physics grade at GCSE level is achieved by drawing a picture and writing a short essay. It has been eviscerated of maths so it can be taught by generic teachers with little understanding of the subject. The maths that used to be in O-level Physics is now found in AS Mathematics.

    So first, educate your teachers correctly, and then fit the correct student to the correct subject. Suit horses for courses. Put the lower intellectual teacher to the lower intellectual class which can be taught most subjects to a lower intellectual level by the same teacher (just like primary/secondary modern schools). Cut down the movement of the less able student at each lesson change.

    But the greatest problem is the intellectual level of Head Teachers. They are ignorant of most subjects outside their specialities.

    There again, every school teacher has a different solution to these problems!

  5. yes.most head teachers I’ve worked with seem to be totally unaware that Science is really 3 distinct subjects, as distinct as HIstory and Geography in the Humanities. 4 distinct subjects if one includes the Mathematics. indeed, the maths I teach as a Science teacher is often in advance of what the students are being taught on their Maths course – graph-drawing skills for instance

  6. The media has a part to play in promoting the importance of science and maths as well.
    How often is science portrayed as difficult, esoteric and only for the elite students? Alternatively it is trivialised or reduced to a series of cheap jokes.
    Take its representation on tv as an example. Think Big Bang Theory (all scientists are freeky geeks who regard themselves as intellectual elitists and are at the same time irrelevant). This show is hilarious for the way it mirrors society’s attitudes to science and scientists, with the most outrageous characters being physicists. Then we have the laudable Professor Brian Cox on our screens being set up as some kind of rock god by a media who don’t think the public can absorb science without having an angle. Teenagers today are bombarded by the sound bite, instant gratification, numerous competing information and entertainment feeds and on-message advertising of the celebrity lifestyle. Is it any wonder that doing hard sums, studying difficult ideas for the long game is less than attractive? The problem is bigger than just changing a few syllabuses and spouting out a few salary figures to our best teen students. They are more savvy than that. Like all of us what they mostly want is the easiest ride to a certain lifestyle and for many the relevance of maths and physics will already have been lost way before they consider A levels. I wish I had an answer but I don’t think that any solution will be a simple one.

  7. I estimate that 90 percent of the maths students learn in England are from teachers who have only 10% knowledge of maths and maths education. A teacher trained to teach any subject, I mean any subject is allowed to teach students maths just because they have QTS. Obviously, these teachers cannot enthuse students into loving maths/physics.

  8. I agree with the students as far as maths is concerned! Higher Mathematics is useful ONLY for people who plan careers in certain areas, such as Science and Architecture. Personally, I have never used any of the mathematics I learnt in school other than arithmetic, measurement, decimals, fractions, and some basic concepts in statistics and geometry. The Algebra and Trigonometry I struggled with and that kept me off the Principal’s Honor Roll – to my great pain – have been absolutely useless to me since my high school graduation! All the other subjects I took in school, by contrast, have been absolutely essential and useful for me. It would have been far better for me if I could have taken more foreign languages and practical technology courses instead!

    Physics is a different matter. It is essential to know about the world around us. I am interested in the ideas, but I personally didn’t take Grade 12 Physics because I was turned off by all the equations. If some UK teachers teach Physics with essay writing and drawing, that may be a good idea for those students who aren’t mathematically inclined, to at least understand the major concepts of the subject. People have different cognitive styles, and not everyone is good at abstract number thinking.

    As a poetic and visual thinker, I got very little out of high school Physical Science except when we did experiments. However, when I late on read books such as the Tao of Physics that show how findings in physics like relativity relate to concepts in Eastern Religion, that got me so interested in the subject! And having basic concepts in paragraphs I could understand as opposed to equations I could not understand turned my attitude toward the subject 100%

    What a surprise out about how students feel about these subjects in the U.K.! In Asia, specially in Sri Lanka where I taught for 10 years, it’s the opposite extreme – everyone wants to do only Sciences and Maths for A-levels, and no one wants to do Arts, Languages, or other subjects. Even when students want to do Arts or Languages and have their talent and ambitions in that area (for example, Sachinthani whose ambition was to be a lawyer), they are pressured by their parents into doing Sciences instead. Even within the realm of Sciences, Asian students are always pressured into hard sciences as opposed to Biology, Geology, or Environmental Science.

    It’s the same for students of Asian ancestry in the USA – my Taiwanese college roommate at Emory University’s interest was in environmental science, and she took charge of the recycling programme in our campus as an intern. But her parents forced her to study medicine instead, which she hated as she could not stand the sight of blood! So I think it’s rather refreshing that students in the U.K. prefer Arts and Biology!

    It’s also important to note that a lack of knowledge of Arts Philosophy, and Social Studies creates a lack of balance in our society. We can’t see the real things for the numbers! For example, we think the fact that a nation’ GNP is going up means everyone is happier, but it may actually mean that the government is spending more on nuclear weapons or on cleaning up what has been ruined. It turns out doctors (at least in the USA) who see their patients as objects and not human beings, and who lack empathy and the ability to talk to patients. Our society seems to worship numbers as a sort of religion!

    As far as boys doing better in Maths and Sciences than girls, that’s a purely cultural bias that certainly exists in the USA as well as the UK, but does not exist here in Asia, where there are so many female scientists, computer programmers, and doctors. But culture is everything, and the role models children see in the media and around them certainly affect their expectations by the time they get to choosing what A-level subject to do!

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