Tag Archive | physics

It’s Been a While …

It has been nearly a thousand days since my last post, and a lot has happened in that time. Mr Gove has gone from a reasonable sounding shadow education minister with some good ideas, to an arrogant, self-assured education minister surrounded with yes-men and no ability to distinguish the good from bad.

We now have religious fundamentalist schools redacting parts of science exam papers with which they disagree, a rapid growth of academies without local oversight, radically changed teacher working conditions and pension arrangements, and an untested performance pay system with new head-teacher powers. There are also radically changed exam arrangements, new performance tables, a swelling Maths curriculum, arguments about English and History contents and a minister who seems to be manoeuvring for the party leadership if the Conservatives lose power in the next general election. And there is UKIP making dodgy sounding statistical claims about immigrants, along with the other right wing xenophobic parties getting more shouty all over Europe and America.

On the science side we have the Higgs Boson discovery, badger culls, shale gas extractions, wind turbine fields, the pause in global warming, observations of cosmological chaotic inflation and of quantum gravity waves.

I had originally planned to post to this blog every couple of weeks: that makes me seventy post behind schedule, so it is time to get cracking!

Gove’s Cunning Plan to Recruit Better Teachers

The ongoing crisis in school Physics teaching was not improved much by the last government, leaving most lessons taught by biologists or chemists. Most English teachers have first class degrees, but a quarter of new Physics teachers have third class degrees, more than any other subject. This is for two main reasons.

First, physicists are drawn to the abstract and the impersonal, and so not many are cut out for the intense social experience that is teaching. This leaves teacher training colleges accepting almost anyone who applies.

Second, few qualified physicists and engineers are willing to work for the kind of salary that is intended to be attractive to people with English or History degrees. Industry pays what is needed to attract those with shortage skills.

The Education Minister, though, has a cunning plan: bar those with a third class degree from funded teacher training places. This will, apparently, make teaching more attractive to the better educated and improve the quality and standing of teaching as a profession. And, to give Gove some credit, there is some logic in this.

Courses Desirable

Modern students deciding on their career choices do see the most difficult to enter professions as the most desirable, so the elite students gravitate to Medicine, with its history of insufficient training places to train all the physicians we need. The restricted entry leads to high levels of salary and a social standing out of all proportion to the skills actually needed to work as a GP.

So Gove’s solution is to raise the entry bar for prospective teachers, without a corresponding pay rise for those with shortage skills. Pay has not risen above inflation for the last decade, and it is still impossible for many schools to fill their Maths and Physics posts with specialists as a result.

The problem Gove has, though, is that teaching is a profession accepts anyone with a non-honours pass degree from a university which may only ask for two grade E’s at A Level. Rejecting third class honours wholesale says that a Third in Physics from Oxford or in Engineering from Imperial College is not as desirable as a Lower Second Class degree in Textiles:Knit from the University of Westminster.

Shortage Skills

An engineering company short of skills or experience would offer a rewards package to attract the best people to apply, and then employ the best amongst the applicants.

Teaching will not become a desirable career for the best qualified and most able people until the salaries reflect the level of ability needed for each post. It takes more money to employ a good mathematician or physicist than it does to get high quality English teachers.

Does Gove have the courage to introduce differential pay in the face of the unions? The current funding squeeze is the perfect cover with the unions weakened, and will be the only chance for a generation. I won’t be holding my breath.

Related posts:
How to Recruit a Physics Teacher
Biologists Shouldn’t Teach Physics
Modular Physics Courses harm Learning

Write to Your MP

MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion to raise awareness of the importance of the shortage of Physics teachers. I’ve written before about the chronic and worsening shortage of Physics teachers (here, here and here), and the attempts by the TDA to hide the decline in which they claimed that all specialist teacher recruitment targets had been met, and it is worth while keeping the issue alive.

Although EDMs don’t often get debated on the floor of the Commons, they do get picked up by the media, and perhaps ministers, if they are well supported, so use the link here to contact your MPs and ask them to sign this one.

The full text is below:

Physics Teachers (no. 467)

“That this House expresses its concern at the lack of specialist physics teachers and the consequent drastic drop in the number of entrants to physics A-level; recognises the threat this poses to UK physics and engineering and therefore to the UK economy; and calls for greater incentives to attract physics graduates into teaching in order to create access to high-quality physics teaching for every child.”

Mass Produced Target Grades

Sixth form students will by now have dragged themselves through the January exam series. They can relax until scores are released in March, when most will be judged according to their college ‘target grades’. And it is likely to be a miserable experience for most.

I used to talk to my students and get to know their individual strengths and weaknesses. I would encourage those who I perceived were studying hard, and chide those who were just attending class without the necessary intellectual engagement. Reports to parents and managers were based on my professional opinion of each child. But not any more.

Teachers still get to know each of their charges, but their professional judgements are now routinely tempered by the knowledge that performance against their grade target trumps all other information.

Value Added

Target grades are now the ubiquitous tool of comparative assessment in schools: Key Stage 3 results are used to predict GCSE grades, while GCSE grade averages are used to compute the most likely grade a student might achieve at A Level. This is a very good process for working out if the school is doing a good job, since if a year group cohort gains a mean score above the mean predicted grade, then the group has learned more than could reasonable been expected. The school thus has recorded some value added, in the language of education.

Using the same data for individual teachers is only likely to be reliable over a period of several years, since the sample sizes from individual classes are much smaller, leading to more variation from year to year.

Blinded by Numbers

The big problem stems from applying these statistics to individual students. It is very easy to calculate an expected grade from a single child’s previous achievement, but with a sample size of just one, the precision is poor. The reliability stemming from a cohort in the hundreds is lost, and the prediction is routinely in error by a whole grade or so. (See my post Physics Exams Too Easy, Says Ofqual

Now, this would not be a problem if these figures were just another piece of the puzzle to be understood by the teacher, but OFSTED, the government overlord of teaching standards, thinks students should know these rough predictions, and be challenged to achieve them. And leaned on if they don’t come up to scratch.

Once upon a time, I got to know my own students, and made judgements as to their individual abilities and potentials, and assessed their effort accordingly. Not perfect, but at least both teacher and student were in the loop.

Forget the Child – Press the Button and Set That Target

Now, each student is given a grade to achieve by the end of a two year course, during which they will mature and develop. If they are very lucky, they will get several target grades which take into account the historical difficulties of each subject they are studying. If not, as is happening more commonly now, they will get a single grade to span the range from Photography and Media to Chemistry and Maths. And to make the target aspirational, a grade will be added to ensure that only a quarter of students will be able to meet their targets, with poor reports and disciplinary procedures for those souls unlucky enough to keep missing impossible targets.


  • Simple and cheap to operate.
  • Keeps OFSTED happy.


  • No educational merit.
  • Can turn keen students into serial target-missers.

An open and shut case for school managers. Shame about the children.

Tories to Ease Physics Teacher Shortage, while TDA Says All is Rosy

Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove has said that a Conservative government will exempt good physics (and science and maths) graduates from student loan repayments if they go into teaching. The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), meanwhile, has muddied the waters by claiming to have exceeded its targets to recruit and train teachers for all main shortage specialisms.

The teacher training quango has managed to massage the teacher recruitment figures to disguise the shortage of physics teachers in schools, by failing to set a target for their recruitment. The TDA reported that “for the first time ever” recruitment to all main specialisms has exceeded their targets and that “a healthy supply of well-trained teachers is entering our classrooms.”

The total number of mainstream registrations of Science teachers did indeed rise, by 1%, from 3655 last year to 3701, although to claim that the target of just 3405 was exceeded “by as much as 9%” seems to be over-egging the results a little.

The key omission, though, is that there is no target for physics teachers at all! Their numbers declined from 584 last year to an estimated 571. Bang goes the government target of having physicists making up a quarter of all science teachers by 2012. With a quarter of current physics teachers already over 50 and keen to retire, this target looks as far away as ever.

(See here and here for my previous comments on physics teacher shortages and the solutions, and on Gordon Brown’s pontifications here.)

The Conservatives, though, look like they at least recognise the seriousness of the problem.

In a speech to the Sir John Cass Foundation, Michael Gove said

“We will make a new offer to people – similar to something President Obama wants to do. If after leaving school someone decides to do a maths or science degree at a designated university, achieves a 2:1 or First, and decides to go into teaching, the taxpayer will cover their student loan repayments for as long as they remain in teaching (until the loan is fully paid).”

This could be worth £40k to a teacher whose pay cannot otherwise be increased beyond that offered to other, less scarce, specialisms.

The Institute of Physics has welcomed the initiative, noting that that

“Children in approximately 500 secondary schools across the country have no teachers with experience of physics beyond school.

“This means too many students being taught physics by teachers who may not even have taken the subject at A-level. How can students be inspired by teachers who themselves have no solid grasp of the subject?

On Keeping Gimmicks Out of the Classroom

David Griffiths, Reed PhysicistHaving resisted all manner of education gimmicks and fashions that have been thrust at me by well meaning college managers, it was refreshing to read the latest piece written by renowned undergraduate textbook writer and educator, David Griffiths. Published in the IoP magazine Physics World, Griffiths reminds us that Physics sells itself to students if presented honestly:

“Physics teachers are fortunate (I am among friends, so I can speak frankly): ours is a subject the relevance and importance of which are beyond question, and which is intrinsically fascinating to anyone whose mind has not been corrupted by bad teaching or poisoned by dogma and superstition. I have never felt the need to “sell” physics, and efforts to do so under the banner “physics is fun” seem to me demeaning. Lay out our wares attractively in the marketplace of ideas and eager buyers will flock to us.

“What we have on offer is nothing less than an explanation of how matter behaves on the most fundamental level. It is a story that is magnificent (by good fortune or divine benevolence), coherent (at least that is the goal), plausible (though far from obvious) and true (that is the most remarkable thing about it). It is imperfect and unfinished (of course), but always improving. It is, moreover, amazingly powerful and extraordinarily useful. Our job is to tell this story – even, if we are lucky, to add a sentence or a paragraph to it. And why not tell it with style and grace?”

He goes on to criticise the gimmickry that is supposed to gain better attention from students. He has this to say about the advent of flash cards and electronic clickers:

“They can be powerfully effective in the hands of an inspired expert like Mazur, but I have seen them reduced to distracting gimmicks by less-capable instructors. What concerns me, however, is the unspoken message reliance on such devices may convey: (1) this stuff is boring; and (2) I cannot rely on you to pay attention. Now, point (2) may be valid, but point (1) is so utterly and perniciously false that one should, in my view, avoid anything that is even remotely open to such an interpretation.”

The point is made that any new approach to teaching will produce measurable improvements, but only because of the enthusiasm of the practitioner. Infectious enthusiasm is most likely the key, and not all teachers have that, so maybe the gadgets help these classes. But I’m not convinced.

Griffiths was known as a great lecturer and scorned such fashions. You can hear one of his lectures here, audio only, though, without the luxury of visuals.

AQA GCSE: Physics Without Physics

Last week England’s largest exam board issued a Physics GCSE paper, aimed at our brightest youngsters, that required no mathematical calculations. Last year’s GCSE Physics papers prompted the Qualifications and Curricculum Authority (QCA) to rule that Physics papers were not sufficiently challenging, but AQA has sunk to a new low.

The paper was the P3 Higher Tier one, so a series of conceptual deductions, calculations, simple algebra and graph interpretation would have been expected, but thousands of pupils were surprised by the disappearance from the exam of the bulk of what they had struggled to learn.

The anonymous quote about the three levels of Physics has finally become complete, officially:

There are three levels of Physics courses: Physics with calculus, Physics without calculus and Physics without Physics.

A paper made up from simplistic sequencing and qualitative statement questions is not suitable for bright or even average students, who were disappointed that they were not to be properly tested after all their rigorous preparation.

We need a new generation of scientists and engineers, but they will not be challenged or tempted by the new and ‘accessable’ Physics Without Physics GCSE courses on offer.

Who are these courses now aimed at? The maths-phobic or the future core of a technological society?