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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 00:01 GMT
Expert teachers 'key to physics'
woman with hand on plasma ball
Report says lessons need to focus on the fun of physics
The decline in school physics in England can be reversed - if experts teach it in a fun way to able pupils as a separate subject, a study suggests.

Researchers at the University of Buckingham said a key step, seen in schools that were bucking the trend, was teaching physics as physics.

Too often it was "wrapped up in science taught by biologists", so pupils could not see whether they were good at it.

A previous report showed that A-level physics entries have halved since 1982.

Many universities have also stopped teaching it - although applications for undergraduate places are up by 12% this year.

This report is the third in the series compiled by Prof Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson.

Learning and finding out, combined with things that are fun to play with, for instance, toys, remote control cars etc. makes a difference to their perception of physics
Successful school quoted in report

"The crucial feature of the successful physics schools in this study was a team of expert teachers," they said.

"Physics and teaching can provide very different satisfactions so it may not be easy to attract physics graduates to teaching. But too many of those who have shown an interest are being lost."

They liked the idea of giving newly-qualified physics teachers a good grounding in a successful department, so they did not find themselves as the only physicist in a school.

"We recommend a feasibility study leading, in the event of a favourable report, to the funding of a pilot scheme in several successful physics schools."


Prof Smithers said: "While there is no magic bullet for reversing the long period of decline it does look as if an important first step would be to teach physics as physics, at least from the age of 13.

"Crucially, this gives pupils the chance to discover whether they are good at it, like it and want to go on with it.

"Too many pupils never have the opportunity of finding out because in their schools the subject is wrapped up in science taught by biologists."

Their report quotes the head of science at one, unidentified school, with few students doing physics A-level, as saying the lack of specialist teaching leaves Year 10 students thinking they "can't do physics".

"When a physicist says to a student 'you are good at this' the student will believe them.

"They have confidence in our comments, when they might not have if they were coming from a non-specialist."

Performing arts

The top physics school in the study had transformed the subject by appointing a clear-sighted and determined head of physics who had restructured the curriculum and brought together a strong team of staff.

But another school with hardly any pupils doing A-level physics, "prided itself on its performing arts, and pupils were continually being taken out of science lessons for drama and music rehearsals," the report said.

Prof Smithers said it should also be possible to get over the "absurd" situation in which schools were short of physics teachers, whereas sixth form colleges had the lecturers but a shortage of students coming through.

"Surely arrangements for sharing the physics lecturers could be devised," he said.

"Both the schools and colleges would benefit."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said the government had done a great deal to recruit more high quality maths and science graduates into teaching but acknowledged there were continuing shortages.

Concern over decline in physics
11 Aug 06 |  Education
Pupils put off science, peers say
05 Nov 06 |  Education
Applications to university rise
14 Feb 07 |  Education

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