The biology of physics


My business behr outcomes acts an independent knowledge broker within education.

As part of what we do, I have been looking at a range of issues to do with how young people progress or don’t to different types of higher education.

Yesterday Ed Miliband, the UK Opposition Leader, made a stirring One Nation’ speech including a section about the importance of doing something for half of the typical cohort of teenagers in England who may not be considering university as an option. Ed’s solution was to propose a Technical Baccalaureate, as a non-academic route for those who may wish to concede that they are more suited for a vocational career. The Coalition Government and the Opposition are both pushing apprenticeships hard, with all kinds of financial incentives existing for firms to hire young people at an early age and train them on the job.

Important though these policy options are, they ignore the equal importance of allowing diverse access to post16 academic routes.

The Institute of Physics has published a very accessible report today about the relatively poor share of girls vs boys studying A-level physics in England. This we have known for a long time. More interestingly is the fact that new data show girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England). And having a sixth form in their school was also a key factor for girls progressing in the subject.

We still need fuller explanations for why this is so, but one suggestion is that many girls in England are afraid of being singled out as a science ‘geek’. Boys seem to have less concerns about this and some even think that doing physics is attractive to the opposite sex. This is called the Brian Cox effect.

The report also shows that boys have an equal interest across the 3 A-level science subjects of biology, chemistry and physics. Girls on the other hand much prefer biology. This could be because they see it as more relevant to health care, a stereotypical career choice for many girls. However they need to be aware that at least one top university prefers that its medical candidates have chemistry first (with at least one of its colleges allowing physics instead), and only then will they accept excellent candidates with two other sciences or maths A-levels.

Some might say this is a deliberate policy of a male dominated system limiting female entrants to the top research/consultancy positions in medicine.

Whatever is going on, it is clear that taking physics if you are a girl who is both aiming high and able to put up with the taunts of ‘geek’, keeps your options open (not just in medicine but in physics, related sciences and engineering).

2 thoughts on “The biology of physics

  1. Pingback: Why is studying chemistry at school or college essential to becoming a doctor? « behrfacts

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