Where are the Physics teachers?

Inspiring Teachers
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Where are the Physics teachers? It’s a pertinent question and one that, through current experience, is tremendously worrying. I work in a fantastic school with an exceptional Physics department. We have 70 students across A-level; three sets of AS and two sets of A2. Myself and my colleague, who is leaving, are the only two that can teach A-level. We’re obviously in need to recruit, but our adverts have not been successful. We haven’t found a suitable applicant. The same is happening at other local schools, great schools, who just cannot recruit a Physics teacher. The Institute of Physics has previously suggested that we need 1000 new Physics teachers each year in order to reach parity with the number of Biology and Chemistry teachers. In 2009 the number of new graduate Physics teachers wasn’t breaking even the number of those leaving the profession.

Where are all the Physics teachers and what are the implications of this lack of availability?

Physics graduates are at an absolute premium, with figures showing that graduates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are well short of the target numbers expected. Half of all Physics teachers leave their jobs within 5 years. Trainee teachers, in general, who start a Postgraduate Certificate in Education course often don’t even complete it. With fewer graduate numbers, it’s not really a surprise that we have a shortage of teachers. This is particularly noticeable in Physics because of how valuable these graduates can be in fields such as finance, telecommunications and IT. Who can blame them? Teaching is a career that is constantly being attacked by the Government resulting in miserably low morale amongst those in the profession. This can only have a negative impact on how teaching is perceived.

The most disappointing implication of the shortage is the effect on the teaching of our students. Figures show that large numbers of Physics teachers don’t have a degree in the subject. Surely that can’t be what will happen at our school? This can create issues further down in the school in trying to produce the best possible Physics students starting at Key Stage 3 and at GCSE. So often people – ourselves included – cite an inspirational teacher as one of their reasons for pursuing a subject further. This could be lost in many respects for Physics.

I sent a letter to The Times which they published today. Here is their edited version:

“Sir, Where are the physics teachers? We are a fantastic state school in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. Ofsted has consistently rated us good with many outstanding features. Until the Government removed the specialist schools budget we were both a science and a performing arts specialist school. Our science department is popular, with at least 40 per cent of our year-12 students taking AS biology and over a third of them taking AS chemistry and AS physics.

One of our three physics teachers is leavnig. Our adverts for a new physics teacher have not drawn a suitable applicant. What can we do? The Institute of Physics offers £20,000 training scholarship incentives to new graduates. Physics is considered one of the priority subjects by the Government. Graduates receive huge bursaries simply to train. Yet a 2009 survey suggests that four of ten students on any Postgraduate Certificate in Education course don’t even become teachers. Between 35 and 45 per cent of all physics teachers are without a degree in the subject. The National STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Centre suggests that half of all new physics teachers leave within 4 and a half years. According to a report from the Social Market Foundation, there is a shortfall of 40,000 science, technology, engineering and maths graduates.

We need more physics teachers.

DREW THOMSON, Head of Physics

GORDON GENTRY, Deputy Headmaster,

Rickmansworth School”

It is a considerable problem, and something that needs to be carefully addressed. We are offering all sorts of financial incentives to draw graduates into teaching, but it is clearly not working well for Physics. We need more of our students to go on and study Physics, and other related subjects, and we need more of these graduates to come into the fantastic career that is teaching.

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3 Comment

  1. Marion says:

    It hasn’t helped that across the country Universities are closing their Physics departments – it’s a vicious circle. I recall when I returned to Uni to do my PGCE following a year out, bumping into the HEAD of lectures in the Physics Dept who was ever so disparaging that I was planning on becoming a Physics teacher. ‘Can’t you find anything else to do?’ he asked!

    AST Physics, now SEN Teacher

  2. mrthomson says:

    It really is a vicious circle. Not enough Physics teachers leading to less going to study Physics in further education leading to less graduates, and less departments for students to study at. This then means less teachers and so on.

    It’s so important too that those in the profession remain positive about being a teacher (worrying about other things like teacher shortages, the national curriculum etc is ok!) It’s a fabulously rewarding job.

  3. Richard Mahony says:

    Teaching is not a fantastic career – at least not teaching in England and Wales in most primary and secondary schools, and FE colleges. Nor is it a fantastic career here in the State of Queensland.

    I taught physics at secondary schools and FE colleges for many years in England at A-level and O-level. In my final job, I was the only physics lecturer. The pressure was relentless. All my equipment was old, corroding and breaking down. The only lab technician knew nothing whatsoever about how to maintain, repair or mend faulty electrical equipment so I had to carry out all the constant repairs myself, in the evening, over the weekends and during school holidays.

    My physics lab was also used to teach the theory of hairdressing two evenings a week. After going home for supper, I would return to my lab in the evening to set up experiments for the next day to find a class of listless girls chewing gum, drinking cans of soft-drink and eating in my lab while their clueless lecturer let them get on with it. Only after the greatest effort was I able to persuade the person responsible for timetabling that a physics lab was not the best place for bored teenage girls to eat, drink and mooch around the place fiddling with whatever took their fancy. Until that happened, I had to set up and dismantle my circuits of class experiments before and after every lesson.

    My wife is currently a Queensland primary school teacher of ten years’ experience. She gets up at 5am, and works until 7am when she leaves the house to drive to school to be there by 7.30 am. She leaves school most days at 5 pm, and is back home at about 5.30. She then works on her school work until she goes to bed. She works almost all weekend and almost every day of the school holidays. She has no time or energy for physical exercise, no time for anything other than work. Because she is so dedicated, she does an excellent job and her kids and parents think she is great. Her school principal and her line manager, who is one of the two deputy principals, couldn’t care less. They simply pile up more work for her to do.

    Classroom teaching is not a fantastic career – not any more, even if it ever was. I am baffled that anyone who is a teacher in all honesty could believe that it is. It is excruciatingly hard work and excruciatingly badly paid at the top of one’s profession (try getting a big enough mortgage today to buy even a flat in Inner London on a teacher’s salary let alone a house). Moreover, as difficult as are many of the school children and their parents in the most socially deprived areas, the worst problems by far for the diligent and conscientious teacher are the lousy school and college managers who have no skills whatsoever in management.

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