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Why it’s never been more vital that we support physics teachers

QA Education asked Charles Tracy, Head of Education at the Institute of Physics, about physics teacher recruitment and how despite a rise in applications, the nation is facing a shortfall of educators in this subject…

Institute of Physics Q&A 

1. Why are you still concerned about physics teacher recruitment?  Hasn’t there been an increase in the numbers of physics teachers being recruited over the past 20 years?

Physics teacher recruitment reached an all-time low of about 200 per year in 2001, and the 20 year average to 2010 was about 450 when it needed to be 700 a year to break even.  So it’s a significant achievement that over the past five years around 750 physics teachers a year have been recruited.  However, we now need about 1,000 new physics teachers a year to make up the shortfall from the losses up to 2010.

So there’s still a job to do and no room for complacency.  Applications to train as physics teachers were 20% lower last year than in the year previously (Ucas).  That means that fewer than 600 new physics teachers will end up in the classroom, well below the 1,000 needed.

That’s a concern when we’re already desperately short of teachers with a proven expertise in teaching physics in our schools. A recent Education Policy Institute report puts the proportion of physics teachers with a relevant degree at just 50% - with only Maths having a lower proportion.

2. Why is it so important to support teachers once they’re in post?

The most important reason is that a teacher’s enthusiasm for their subject is infectious!  All the research points to the fact that students who are taught by teachers with a specific expertise in, and a real love of their subject are far more likely to enjoy that subject and pursue it to higher levels.

We want future generations to discover what an exciting subject physics can be, and to benefit from the knowledge, ways of thinking and opportunities provided by a good physics education.  Therefore, we need to create the optimum conditions in which the subject and its teachers can flourish. Doing that starts with ensuring that we have as many high-quality teachers as possible and that they’re given the tools and support to stay confident and rewarded by their role. Charles Tracy, Institute of Physics

Currently, two-fifths of physics graduates teaching six months after graduating leave the profession within 3.5 years.  And physics NQTs are 30% more likely to leave the profession than NQTs in non-science subjects (Institute for Fiscal Studies:  The characteristics of and earnings and outcomes for physics teachers, March 2018).

We need to recognise and reduce this attrition by supporting early career teachers with networks, professional learning opportunities and high-quality resources.

3. What is the IOP doing to support teachers?

We have all sorts of initiatives in place that create networks of schools supporting each other through IOP physics coaches (either school-based or regional). There are over 120 coaches working across our Stimulating Physics Network, Future Physics Leaders Network and Teacher Network.

They lead workshops, run day meetings and support early career teachers. In a typical month there are over 40 events – all listed on talkphysics.org/events, with our coaches providing 40,000 hours of professional development per year and over 50,000 hours of student engagement activities for partner schools.

Most recently we’ve launched IOPSpark – iop.org/spark – the UK’s largest source of free physics teaching resources.

4.  Why is online support so vital?

Teaching science subjects today is extremely demanding and so teachers need to have a constant source of support available that they can access whenever needed.

On IOPSpark teachers can find valuable ready-to-use activities as well as links to research and discussion forums for advice and questions.  These kinds of resources are particularly helpful for those teaching outside their area of expertise.

IOPSpark also helps reduce planning workloads for all physics teachers, by providing access to over 2000 free teaching resources, all searchable by curriculum area, student age and activity type. All of the resources have been tried and tested by physics teachers, IOP approved and curated into collections with smart links so the site makes it easier than ever to find quality resources.

Our hope is that by providing a comprehensive and free ‘go-to’ resource we can cut planning time, increase subject confidence, create valuable support networks and connect teachers with inspiring new ways of bringing physics to life.

To find out more about the Institute of Physics’ education initiatives and how to get involved go to iop.org/education.  To discover a wealth of new, free teaching resources go to iop.org/spark