Half of mixed-sex state schools have no girls choosing physics as an A-level subject, research shows.
The report by the Institute of Physics reveals that no 16-year-old female GCSE pupils, from 49 per cent of co-educational state schools, went on to take the subject at A level.
Girls at single-sex schools were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to take physics A level.
The lowest figures were for schools without a sixth-form, whose pupils were the least likely to take the subject when beginning their A level studies elsewhere.
The institute used records of A level exams sat last year, and tracked back to find out what type of school candidates attended at GCSE level.
In its report, It’s Different for Girls, Prof Sir Peter Knight, president of the institute, said: “Physics is a subject that opens doors to exciting higher education and career opportunities. This research shows that half of England’s co-ed comprehensives are keeping these doors firmly shut to girls.
“Perceptions of physics are formed well beyond the physics classroom: the English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics or the lack of female physicists on television, for example, can play a part in forming girls’ perceptions of the subject.”
The proportion of girls choosing A level physics has been consistent, at about 20 per cent, for more than 20 years, but the report said that evidence from the database helped to confirm the source of the problem.
Clare Thomson, curriculum and diversity Manager at the institute, said: “The importance of having a sixth form in your school for uptake of physics is related to the availability of specialist physics teachers – a factor we know contributes to enjoyment of and engagement with the subject across both sexes.
“Schools that have a sixth form are more likely to have specialist physics teachers on their staff and these teachers’ confident and enthusiastic teaching of the subject inspires a greater number of students to progress on to A-level physics and beyond.”
The institute makes a series of recommendations, including that gender equity in subjects should be part of Ofsted inspection criteria.
Caroline Jordan, the head of Headington School in Oxford and chair of the Girls’ Schools Association education committee, said: “In single-sex schools you simply do not see girls making choices that are gender biased and this is particularly so in physics, where girls get to tackle everything.
“In co-ed schools boys can grab all the equipment and give the impression of being in charge, while girls find themselves consigned to writing down results.”
Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, said: “For a girl to choose physics in a co-ed school is often viewed as a brave choice or a risky move. Teenage girls (and boys for that matter) are often desperate to fit in with their peer group, and can be concerned at the prospect of doing anything that might make them stand out from the crowd, which makes a girl studying a subject which some might view as ‘unfeminine’ much more of a social risk.
“The key ages for this sort of self-consciousness are the years from age 13 to 16, just when pupils are choosing which subjects they want to take for their GCSEs and A Levels.”