Drop in number of North Ireland A-level physics students

17 August 2018

As students across the UK received their A-level results, the Institute of Physics in Ireland (IOP) has expressed concern that the number of students taking Physics A-level in Northern Ireland has dropped for the fifth year in a row.

Exam Results

The number of NI physics students has decreased by almost 4%, from 1293 in 2017 to 1242 in 2018, and continues a pattern of decline from 2013. Since then, the number of physics entries in Northern Ireland has declined by 21%.

This is in contrast with the UK as a whole, where for the second year in a row the number of students taking physics has increased - up 3% on 2017 - indicating that specific Government and IOP actions to enhance uptake are having a significant effect.

A further cause for concern is that the gender imbalance in A-level Physics in Northern Ireland is continuing to grow. The total number of females taking the subject has dropped again this year from 368 in 2017 to 326, making up just 26% of the cohort taking physics compared to 2012, when they comprised 31%.

Chair of the Institute of Physics in Ireland, Professor David Riley, said:

“The situation regarding the decline in physics in Northern Ireland is shocking and requires a functioning Government to address this.

“Northern Ireland’s economy has the highest figure of economic inactivity (23%) in the UK and Ireland and is facing further challenges from Brexit. A recent report from Catalyst noted that the Knowledge Economy in Northern Ireland is 20% below the UK average. Physics is the means by which NI’s economic future can be safeguarded.”

A recent IOP report analysed the role of physics in economic growth in NI and showed that physics-based industries bring in over £3.2 bn to the economy in Northern Ireland.

Professor Riley added:

“We need people with the critical and technical skills from physics, yet around half of schools in Northern Ireland don’t have any students studying the subject at all, with 90% of Physics A-level entries coming from the grammar school sector. This stark inequality needs to be addressed.”

IOP Ireland’s Education and Outreach Advisor, Dr Liz Conlon, added:

“In the May 2018, the Matrix Report from the Department of the Economy, ‘Women in Stem’ showed that the lack of women in the STEM workforce is seriously damaging Northern Ireland’s economy, and called for recommendations in this area to be implemented urgently.

“We at the IOP are working closely with the Department for Education in England to provide comprehensive support for schools both around gender issues and improving the overall take up of physics which have had significant success. We are very keen to affect transformation for physics in Northern Ireland too and work closely with the authorities here to implement these programmes in NI.”

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