N. Ireland physics numbers at odds with the rest of UK

14 August 2014

As students across the UK receive their A-level results the Institute of Physics in Ireland has expressed concern that in Northern Ireland the number of students taking physics at A-level has dropped by almost 2%, which runs counter to rises in the subject across the rest of the UK.

N. Ireland physics numbers at odds with the rest of UK

The number of NI physics students has dropped from 1577 in 2013 to 1549 in 2014. In the UK as a whole the numbers taking physics have increased by 3.2%. The numbers also contrast with yesterday’s announcement of the 11% increase in the Leaving Certificate physics numbers in Ireland.

Concern has also been expressed about the continuing fall in the numbers of girls in Northern Ireland taking physics. This year 389 girls took the subject compared with 392 last year. While the drop is small, it follows a large decrease in 2013 of 17% compared with 2012 and seems to confirm a worrying trend.

Northern Ireland has traditionally had a better female uptake of physics compared with the rest of the UK. In 2012 girls made up 31% of the physics cohort compared with under 20% in the UK. This year, the N. Ireland female proportion is at 25% compared with 21% in the UK as a whole. 

N. Ireland physics numbers at odds with the rest of UK


A recent report from the Institute of Physics noted that businesses that are critically dependent on physics contribute 8.8% of Northern Ireland’s economic output – more than £1.5 bn – and employ nearly 27,000 people.

Peter van der Burgt, Chair of the Institute of Physics in Ireland, noted: “In England the IOP, working in partnership with the government through its Stimulating Physics Network, has brought about an almost 20% rise in the number of physics A-level candidates over the past five years and physics is now in the top 10 most popular subjects on offer at A-level.”

Commenting on the continued gender imbalance of the entrants, he continued: “To have girls making up only a quarter of the A-level physics cohort is a real loss to society and, more importantly, we can be sure that there are thousands of highly able girls in Ireland who are missing valuable opportunities.” 



Recently the Institute has produced a range of reports which examine the factors which influence the female uptake of physics.

Research has shown that:

  • Students’ interest in science declines as they progress through school, and the decline appears to become steeper after age 14, particularly for girls, and particularly in physics
  • Girls, more than boys, experience a difference between their personal goals for learning and the learning objectives of the physics curriculum. As a consequence they are less inclined to opt for physics, even if they achieve high grades and enjoy the subject

The key influences on students’ attitudes to physics have been identified as:

  • Self-concept – that is, students’ sense of themselves in relation to the subject, the value they place on the subject and their willingness to engage with it
  • Views of physics – that is, how students experience physics at school
  • Teacher-student relationships – that is, how personally supportive students find their physics teacher

For more information on supporting girls into physics see: http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/page_41593.html