Teaching physics is a joy (I’m bias). But really, it’s bloody brilliant. Teaching is brilliant, physics is brilliant. Teaching physics is genuinely bloody brilliant. So why is there this struggle to recruit and retain physics teachers?
If you have a physics degree, you can do an awful lot of other jobs that can pay you more money and give you a better work-life balance. It’s the same with other degrees too, but the options with physics (and maths) are vast. The starting salaries on average for a physics graduate is around £22k, so it’s not that. The whole public sector pay freeze agenda clearly acts to make physics graduates think that other areas are more financially attractive. This will apply across (all?) other subjects too. The same with the media about working conditions. A quick look at the Guardian shows that in a recent 11-day spell they had this on preventing headteacher burnout, this on tips to help schools reduce teacher workload and this on a Secret Teacher where the children have kept them going amidst their stressful year. Teaching only appears attractive to those who see it as some kind of calling, rather than a ‘normal’ sustainable career.
Think about it. You’re a new physics graduate. HEY SHALL I GO AND WORK FOR A BANK? Oh wait, wasn’t there an article in the paper from the Secret Banker re it was the joy of their client interactions that kept them going in a horrible year? And OMG that article on reducing banker burnout; I best choose another option! Oh no, no that isn’t something that is spread around the media. I’m certain those jobs are hard, and being successful takes an enormous effort but we don’t ever hear much about it.
The number of physics graduates doesn’t help. Of the 1,000,000+ students studying for a science-based degree, under 100,000 are in the physical sciences; less than 10%. Large numbers pursue medicine and biological sciences. Given there are fewer graduates in physics (and there are some very appealing alternatives to teaching) it is little wonder there is a particularly acute issue in the subject.
What do we need to do?
- Teaching in state schools has to become more appealing. Increase funding to give teachers space and time in their timetable, ideally reducing class sizes, and reduce accountability measures to return trust back to the profession. Leaders should be allowed to lead – not shackled by too many conformist expectations and paperwork – and teachers should be allowed to teach, free from the same said shackles.
- Media portrayal should shift if there are genuine changes in the teaching profession. It would help if the media made a conscious effort to balance the joy of teaching a bit more with the utter misery that is often outlined
- For physics, we need more specialist teachers in schools (especially state schools) to ensure KS3 physics is taught by (at least some) specialists. This could increase A Level and then university numbers. In 46% of secondary schools there are NO FEMALE A LEVEL PHYSICS STUDENTS . And in state schools, 51% of physics teachers have a relevant degree.
- For physics, we need clear modern schools subject choice and career advice. No longer are parents and grandparents’ perceptions of what a physicist is and does relevant (as with many subjects). Schools need to ensure they understand the opportunities presented by STEM subjects and the role physics has to play in this. How often do you hear, and possibly day, that physics and chemistry are hard subjects? I tell you what, for me art, history and drama are hard subjects. It’s up to us to tell everyone that all subjects are open to our students.
- For all subjects, gender balance is important. We need to identify biases in what we think, do and say in order to ensure all subjects are on an even footing when students are making choices. For physics and maths, girls persistently under sell themselves and avoid taking it further through lack of awareness of how good they are, whereas boys over sell and may be making the wrong choice (!) Check out the IOP research on gender balance in all subjects. 20% of A Level physics students are girls. Not ok. Similarly not ok is that less than 30% of A Level English students are boys.
There are lots of initiatives that have come in over the years to provide incentives to physicists, including lucrative bursaries, but without fixing the general education landscape we’re screwed anyway.