TEACHING GIRLS TO LOVE PHYSICS – Alan Maude, Head of Faculty: Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Farlington School

19 Mar 2014

According to a recent report published by the Institute of Physics (IoP), almost half (49%) of state-funded mixed schools in England are ‘reinforcing gender stereotypes’ in terms of the subjects students study at A-level. The report revealed that in many mixed state schools, the proportion of girls taking Physics is even lower than the national average, which is already very skewed at just one girl to every four boys.

The lack of female role models has a profound effect on girls choosing A-levels, says sociologist Louise Archer at King’s College London. “For girls in particular, Physics is seen as being a very masculine subject,” she says. “So the girls who like Physics have to work a lot harder to balance it with that notion of normal femininity.”

At Farlington, a girls’ school outside Horsham with an excellent record for encouraging pupils to study science subjects, Physics isn’t regarded as a gendered subject. Lucy Rutherford, Farlington’s Subject Leader, Physics, says, “At Farlington we have no gender stereotyping by subject or by peers; we have positive, female role models and teachers with degrees in their specialisms. These are not typical conditions on a national basis and are hugely important in encouraging the girls to continue with science subjects.

“In the current Lower Sixth, 31% of students study three or more  Science and Maths A-Levels (out of a usual total of four AS Levels) and 38% study at least one physical science (Physics or Chemistry), and the majority (80%) of these actually do both Physics and Chemistry. In the Upper Sixth, 45% of students study two or more A-Levels in Science and Maths with 40% studying at least one Physical Science.”

Lucy Rutherford adds, “At Farlington, all faculty members strive to ensure that all our students, at whatever level, become familiar with the ‘wow’ factor that science has in so many ways. Every year we have students that take their scientific studies further.  Currently, we have students applying to read Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering, Mathematics, Biomedical Science and, of course, Medicine at university. There are currently ex-Farlington students completing PhDs in biological, chemical and physical areas.”

While the number of girls taking A-level Physics has steadily increased nationally, the proportion who are female has hovered around 20-22% for several years. Professor Knight, IoP’s President said, “There is still a huge amount of work to be done to ensure that girls are not denied their entitlement to a good Physics education. Not least, we know that anachronistic gender stereotypes persist in many classrooms and these contribute to an outrageous unfairness that we continue to fight against.”

Alan Maude, Farlington’s Head of Faculty: Mathematics and Natural Sciences, outlines why the school is winning the battle against these prejudices: “The girls have time to become more confident; they are not made to feel that science is just for boys; they can make mistakes in a non-threatening environment. The teachers at Farlington understand the way in which girls learn science and can help them to develop a love of the subject that lasts way beyond their school years.”


Photo: Lower Sixth girls on a recent trip to a Science conference at the University of Surrey, with TV presenter Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics.

Farlington School, West Sussex