Monthly Archives: February 2015

Feminisation and Decline of Physics A Level


We hear a lot about the feminisation of schooling. Here I present a specific example, with clear evidence: the deliberate feminisation of the A Level physics curriculum.

In 2006 the Institute of Physics commissioned a study into the reasons why girls choose not to study physics at A-Level (Murphy and Whitelegg, Ref.1). The key findings of this report were discussed in the Department of Education & Skills’ report, “Gender and Education: the Evidence on Pupils in England”, Ref.2. Some key quotes from these reports are as follows.

Murphy and Whitelegg refer to studies that have shown that physics and other sciences are measured to be up to a whole grade more difficult compared with most other subjects at A Level and GCSE.

I don’t see that as a bad thing. It means that standards are high. (Actually, they are not, as I show below – but this suggests that the standard is truly woeful in other subjects).

These findings have been challenged, but there is still a perception of physics as a difficult subject, which may act as a deterrent, particularly to girls.

Why should a subject being hard be a deterrent to girls? If it’s hard, it’s hard for everyone. I hope you are not suggesting that girls are not clever enough? I don’t believe that. (And of those girls who do study physics at A level, a greater percentage get an A grade than boys).

Girls are more likely than boys to give value to the social context in which tasks are posed in defining a problem; boys are more likely than girls not to “notice” the context….some students, particularly boys, see little value in a focus on social contexts and problems.

Fair enough. That may explain why physics is less popular with girls, then. Because physics is about inanimate matter and has no social context.

But to the authors of Refs.1 and 2, having identified the “problem”, the next step is to overcome it. If physics is not to girls’ liking, then physics will have to change, like this,

The Murphy and Whitelegg report describes the need for curriculum change and change in the teaching and assessment of physics in order to engage girls better. The curriculum should be “context based” or “humanistic”. It should: Use a variety of social situations and contexts to organise and determine the scientific content of the course; Represent science as something that people do, influenced by historical, political, cultural and personal factors, not just as a body of knowledge; Use values inherent in science as topics for discussion and critique.

Speaking as a physicist myself, this is a monstrous travesty. I cannot conceal my outrage at having some utter moron piss on my subject. You’re going to use “social situations” to determine the scientific content of the course? This makes as much sense as suggesting you use a proton synchrotron to write a literary critique of Pride and Prejudice.

Grasp this: the whole power of science, and physics in particular, is its strict objectivity. By adhering to rigorous objectivity we can uncover absolute facts about the world. Objectivity is achieved by the exclusion of the subjective. Therein lies the power of the experimental method, prior to which sophists would simply debate their prejudices endlessly.

There is no social context in physics, you fools. It’s about electrons. It’s about the motion of planets, which is not noticeably influenced by the existence of homo sapiens. It’s about the primordial fireball in the first fraction of a second of the universe’s existence. It’s about pure mathematical constructs of awesome elegance which turn out, amazingly, ineffably, numinously, to align with the behaviour of inanimate matter. It is gloriously austere and deeply mysterious.

It’s supposed to be forbidding for it reveals the face of God, in as far as it can be apprehended by mortals.

It is, in fact, one of the few things that lifts human life a little above the level of the mundane and utilitarian.

And these idiots have confused it with technology.

Of course, to the faux-intellectual post-modernist there is no such thing as absolute truth. They tell us that science is a social construct. I don’t see them throwing themselves off high places in the belief that gravity is a mere social construct, more’s the pity.

Here’s an illustration of what you get if you let post-modernists loose on science: from Sandra Harding, Ref.3, so-called feminist philosopher and philosopher of science,

Why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as “Newton’s rape manual” as it is to call them “Newton’s mechanics”?

Well, Sandra, without wishing to dive too deeply into rigorous analysis, that’ll be because it’s utter bollocks. No, on reflection, it’s worse: it gives genuine, well-thought out utter bollocks a bad name.

Or consider that other feminist philosopher, Luce Irigaray, Ref.4, who regards E = mc2 as a “sexed equation” because she argues that,

It privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.

Thanks for explaining that one to me, Luce. To be fair, the invariance of light speed came as a great surprise to physicists, too. But, you see, that’s the point. To the scientist, once the experimental evidence has accumulated sufficiently, it becomes incumbent upon one to accept reality, whether it conforms to one’s preconceptions or not – and relativity definitely did not. To the post-modernist, though, the dictum is, “if I don’t like it, then it isn’t so”.

Recall that wonderfully dismissive expression of Wolfgang Pauli’s: “not even wrong”? Well, these people are of an entirely different order. They are not even not even wrong.

But back to A Level physics. What Murphy and Whitelegg recommended is that physics be changed to suit girls better. To hell with the subject, let’s just replace it with some drivel on which girls can get a good mark. Who cares about real education, as long as we can provide a vehicle to further the feminist objective of female dominance in everything?

But no one paid them any mind, surely?

Dream on.

When feminists say “jump”, people jump. And jump they did.

What Murphy and Whitelegg, Ref.1, advocated in 2006 was a change to the A Level physics curriculum to introduce or emphasise context and the human element. But Murphy and Whitelegg’s report was a review of earlier reports dating predominantly from 1990 to 2005. The changes needed to make physics more appealing to girls had already been well publicised. Consequently the Exam Boards were already ahead of the game in terms of providing the required revised curriculum.

Exam Board AQA had already introduced in 2002 a “Physics B” curriculum called “Physics in Context”. The use of the keyword “context” ties this modified syllabus unambiguously to the agenda exemplified by Ref.1 but actually in currency for years before this report. The AQA web site advocates Physics B in these terms,

“Physics B: Physics in Context” places the subject firmly in a range of contemporary contexts. It introduces students to new and exciting areas of physics and develops essential knowledge and understanding – all through a context and applications led approach to capture the interest of students.

For “capture the interest of students” we can read, in the light of Ref.1, “capture the interest of girls”.

Similarly, the exam Board OCR introduced their alternative A Level “Physics B (Advancing Physics)” in 2005. The OCR web site recommends this new curriculum in these words,

The Advancing Physics course provides a distinctive structure within which candidates learn both about fundamental physical concepts and about physics in everyday and technological settings. It shows the usefulness of the subject and illustrates the impact that discoveries in physics have had on the way people live…… In Advancing Physics there are opportunities for candidates to….. use their imagination, and, place physics in a social or historical context and argue about the issues that arise.

I think this establishes that the changes align with what Refs.1 and 2 identify as specifically designed to appeal to girls, but not necessarily to boys, i.e., deliberate feminisation.

The Exam Board Edexcel have retained a single exam but modified the corresponding pedagogy so that it may be either concept-led or context-led. The context-led approach is based on the Salters Horners Advanced Physics Project and has been in use since 2000. An extract from the Edexcel syllabus guide describes the context-led approach thus,

The context approach begins with the consideration of an application that draws on many different areas of physics, and then the laws, theories and models of physics that apply to this application are studied. The context approach for this unit uses three different contexts: sports, the production of sweets and biscuits and spare part surgery.

Again the keyword “context” clearly aligns it with the intent of Refs.1 and 2. Although there is only one set of exams in this case, the teacher is given two different ways in which to approach the material, and we see that the context-led approach is aligned with feminised pedagogy.

You might imagine that no harm is done by the options introduced by the Exam Boards since only an alternative to the more traditional, concept-led, approach has been offered. But this is illusory. How many schools can resource teaching one group of pupils “Physics A” and another group of pupils “Physics B”? None, I suggest. A choice of one or the other has to be made. Even if the exam is the same (Edexcel), the teacher must choose one or other of the teaching styles, concept-led or context-led.

So which is it to be? Well, which do you think? I have no data for the country as a whole. But I can tell you the position at my local secondary school (a state comprehensive). They have opted for Exam Board OCR and are studying Physics B, the context-led, or feminised, syllabus. And how many girls are taking the subject at A level? In the lower sixth (AS year) just 4 girls out of a class of 40. And that is despite the head of physics being a woman (a proper physicist, by the way, with a PhD in particle physics).

So, 90% of the candidates, the boys, are being taught a curriculum which has been optimised for the remaining 10%, the girls, because this is what has resulted from a politically-driven desire to encourage more girls into the subject. The girls have duly, and unsurprisingly, declined to oblige. And the boys are left with the feminised syllabus.

Hey ho.

I have one final observation to make regarding the relative popularity of physics with boys. Whilst physics does exert a positive attraction to many boys, both for its intrinsic interest and because of the perceived employment benefits, it is incorrect to assume that these are the only reasons for physics (and maths) being popular with boys. There is also a less appreciated and more disturbing reason. I know this is so because my own sons were a case in point. Many boys suffer from poor verbal skills, possibly, but not necessarily, as severe as dyslexia. Having suffered this major disadvantage throughout their school experience, when choosing their A Level subjects they are keen to minimise any further exposure to the dreaded word. Subjects that involve much reading or writing are avoided. Hence maths, physics, and ultimately engineering and other ‘hard’ sciences, rise to the fore. From this perspective the male dominance of STEM subjects can be seen, not as a privilege, but as a symptom of boys’ general educational disadvantage in other areas.

Whilst on the subject of physics A Level I’d like to expose a separate (or is it?) issue, namely the decline of standards. This is unlikely to mean much to non-physicists, but I invite you to compare the 2008 OCR Physics B exam papers with the A level physics papers from 1962 (NUJMB). These can be downloaded as follows,

OCR 2008

NUJMB 1962

The modern A level structure involves taking so-called AS exams after the first year’s study (“lower sixth” in old money). The second half of the syllabus is examined as the A2 exams at the end of the second year’s study. The two sets of exams, AS and A2, count equally to the overall A Level. Consequently it is valid to compare both the AS and the A2 exams directly with the old (1962) A level papers. Moreover, the fact that only half the syllabus is tested at any one time means that the modern approach is intrinsically less demanding, i.e., in 1962 the candidate would be required to know the whole syllabus at the end of the second year.

(For interest I have included in the 1962 set the “special paper” or “scholarship paper”. This is not comparable with A level, and never was. It was intended to be substantially more demanding, comparable to the Oxbridge entrance exams). Perhaps even the non-physicist can see how different the exams now are. The salient differences include,

  • Exams used to be longer. All the papers in 1962 were 3 hours long. These days the exams are generally one-and-a-half hours, give or take 15 minutes. But there are more of them, so the total examination time is similar.
  • The modern physics papers ask questions in which the candidate is led very gently, step by step, through a problem. Consequently it is possible for someone knowing little or no physics to get some parts right just by using common sense. Contrast this with a typical 1960s question such as “describe the principles and operation of a moving coil galvanometer”. These days the question would spell out the design and operation of a galvanometer and then ask a question like “what is its internal resistance”, given the potential difference and current, thus requiring the candidate to do no more than divide V by I.
  • The extent of knowledge required now is slight compared with the 1960s.
  • These days the candidates are given a sheet of relevant formulae. In 1960 you were expected to know all the relevant formulae.
  • The mathematical demands of the modern A Level are essentially nil. The hardest algebraic manipulation demanded is trivial and can be done easily in your head. This contrasts with the 1960s when mathematical derivations up to and including calculus were expected as part of the solution methodology.
  • The modern syllabus has added various aspects of modern physics, such as elementary aspects of quantum mechanics and particle physics. However, the depth has rather gone out of the subject in my opinion. How many candidates these days, even the strong candidates, would know the adiabatic equation of state of a gas – let alone how to derive it?
  • But in the 1960s there was a large degree of choice in what questions to address, whereas today there tends not to be any choice.

Overall it is clear to me that the standard has dropped dramatically. But this is not the opinion of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority whose 2005 report, Ref.5, compared 2001 with 1996 and concluded that “there was no clear trend in standards over time”. Perhaps they didn’t use a long enough time base. However, they did identify most of the qualitative issues I noted above, namely,

  • an increasing emphasis on the applications of physics,
  • a trend towards including more modern topics, such as particle physics,
  • a less mathematical treatment was becoming common; the need to use calculus was either removed or reduced,
  • an increase in the entry for modular syllabuses,
  • increased use of more structured questions.

I am a zealot in the matter of physics, admittedly, but I’d like to see the subject made more demanding again (though not necessarily being so reactionary as to have a syllabus quite like that of the 1960s).

It rather raises the question as to why standards have dropped. It is a broader question than just the feminisation issue. I have not researched the matter and make no definitive statement. However, the answer seems rather obvious. Since the 1960s we have seen the introduction of school league tables and the massive expansion of universities, hungry for students who are now paying customers. How can so many more university places be filled unless standards were dropped? The school teachers are judged on their performance, and the schools themselves are judged upon their performance, but both of these are gauged by exam results. The schools therefore have a vested interest in exam grade inflation, whilst the universities are keen to collaborate so as to acquire more paying customers. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is, perhaps, too feeble a regulator to resist pressure from The Blob, which will all be one way. Pity the teaching staff at the universities who have to live with the result. But I merely speculate about the cause of the decline. It requires closer inspection – perhaps a reader can provide it.


  1. Patricia Murphy & Elizabeth Whitelegg, “Girls in the Physics Classroom: A Review of the Research on the Participation of Girls in Physics”, Institute of Physics, June 2006.
  2. Department of Education & Skills’ report, “Gender and Education: the Evidence on Pupils in England” published in 2007.
  3. Sandra Harding, “The Science Question in Feminism”, Cornell University Press 1986
  4. Alan Sokal, “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science” St Martin’s Press; 1st Picador USA Pbk. Ed edition (Nov. 1999)
  5. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, “Review of standards in physics: GCSE 1997 and 2002; A level 1996 and 2001”, 2005.