The shortage of specialist physics teachers in the classroom continues to be a significant concern.
Gatsby recognises that to achieve our ambitions regarding the supply of STEM skills to the UK workforce, we must ensure that young people are taught by well-qualified and motivated specialists.
School science is not only important in its own right, but as a gateway to a wide range of STEM subjects including engineering. Limiting the number of pupils taking science qualifications at school will reduce the level of STEM skills in the UK, causing both skills shortages and a negative effect on the economy.
We have a long legacy of supporting science in secondary schools and colleges; from piloting new approaches to teacher recruitment and professional development, to supporting initiatives which encourage innovation and engaging practical activity in science lessons and STEM clubs.
The shortage of specialist physics teachers in the classroom continues to be a significant concern. Estimates suggest that over 500 secondary schools in England do not have a single specialist physics teacher on their staff and that even greater numbers of new teachers must be recruited every year for the next fifteen years if we want to significantly improve the situation.
The number of students who progress to A-level from a school (and in the country) is an indication of how good the teaching of the subject was up to the age of 16. So, a school that has no students going on to take A-level has probably provided a less than adequate experience of the subject to all of its students. In 2011, there were 1603 schools that sent no girls on to take A-level physics and 467 that sent no boys. About 500 sent no students at all on to take physics A-level.
Over the last decade Gatsby has undertaken a substantial programme of work designed to recruit and retain high quality physics teachers. Between 2005 and 2009, we commissioned Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson at the University of Buckingham to produce six reports (available to download from the reports box on this page), each examining a different aspect of physics education. The reports proved influential - sometimes significantly so - particularly in ensuring the issue of physics teacher supply remained high on the agenda of politicians and opinion formers.
The reports also developed the theme that those schools which perform well in physics (both in terms of achievement and in the number of students progressing to A-Level) share common characteristics. These include a well-trained staff and strong leadership but also the conviction that physics should be taught as a distinct, identifiable subject, even if it is found within the broader framework of GCSE Science. These findings fed into the debate preceding the government’s decision in 2008 to promote a widespread expansion of the teaching of ‘Triple Science’ (three separate GCSEs in physics, chemistry and biology) – a move strongly supported by Gatsby.
Our work has included piloting subject knowledge enhancement courses for both those entering initial teacher education and for serving teachers, designing mentoring programmes to support newly qualified teachers, supporting teacher training institutions with their marketing programmes and creating innovative routes into teacher training for those with non-traditional backgrounds.
More recently we have been working with the Institute of Physics (IOP), BCS (The Chartered Institute of IT) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) to develop online diagnostic subject knowledge testing. We hope that these tests will help to define the level of subject knowledge required to be a specialist physics, computer science or chemistry teacher and help to shape the level of professional development required.
We have also supported Teach First to develop an internship programme providing school experience and additional support for STEM applicants prior to application.
We are developing diagnostic tests to help define the subject knowledge required to be a specialist physics, chemistry or computer science teacher and to allow teachers to identify gaps in their own knowledge and find appropriate resources to address them.
We have been working with the Institute of Physics (IoP), the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and BCS (The Chartered Institute of IT) to develop rigorous online subject knowledge testing in chemistry, physics and computer science. The tests were originally conceived as part of the Subject Knowledge Enhancement (SKE) courses as a way of assessing subject knowledge on entry and completion of the courses. However, we believe that the tests will have much wider application in terms of defining the subject knowledge required to be a specialist physics, chemistry or computer science teacher.
The term specialist teacher is not clearly and universally defined. Some believe that you must have a degree or a PGCE in your subject in order to be considered a specialist. Others would argue that completing a pre-teacher training SKE course or continuing professional development courses can provide enough subject knowledge to become a specialist teacher. We believe that the tests could provide a common understanding of the subject knowledge required to be a specialist teacher.
The tests will be available online through the IoP, BCS and RSC. Rather than being simple questions, the tests will be diagnostic in nature and aim to uncover common misconceptions as well as gaps in subject knowledge. Upon completing the tests, users will be directed to appropriate professional development courses and resources to help them address any issues and improve their subject knowledge.
The tests are being piloted with trainee teachers with a view to making them more widely available in the near future.
Teach First recruits exceptional graduates to teach in schools in challenging circumstances. We have supported Teach First on a range of projects, including ones aimed at increasing the number of physics specialists recruited onto the programme.
Participants commit to at least two years of teaching and benefit from training, mentoring and other opportunities that put them in a strong position to transfer to careers in business.
In 2004 we supported Teach First to develop a project to encourage participants to stay in teaching beyond the initial two year commitment. Gatsby support also allowed Teach First to provide some additional subject specific support for maths and science teachers. Much of this work is now embedded in the core Teach First offering. We also supported Teach First to create an ambassador initiative, which allows those who choose to leave the profession to remain involved in education.
We have worked with Teach First on a strategy to increase the number of physics specialists accepted on the programme. Gatsby support allowed Teach First to expand its marketing efforts to non-traditional Teach First universities who have a large number of physics undergraduates. Physics specialists were also given additional support and training during the application process, both to help prevent drop-out during the process and to maximise their chances of success.
More recently we have supported Teach First to develop Insight, an internship programme providing school experience prior to application.