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Ireland finds itself with a shortage of specialist physics teachers. And yet, the country sets much store on a high technology future – which depends on great teaching of physics and lots of students choosing physics and other technical subjects.
So what are the numbers? The Teaching Council in Ireland has just 1,200 physics specialists registered, about a sixth of the total of 7,000 science teachers, when we would expect it to be about a third.
And there is a deeper problem: these teachers are unevenly distributed across the country, so that about a quarter of schools do not offer physics at Leaving Certificate level at all, with entries for biology outnumbering those for physics by more than four to one. It also leads to the situation where the majority of junior-cycle science teachers are from a biology background, leading to a concern that students may not encounter a physics teacher before making critical decisions about their Leaving Cert subjects.
The figures for entrants into the teaching profession in Ireland are also cause for concern, with undergraduate and postgraduate routes yielding only about 30-40 new physics teachers each year, with the consequent risk of a serious situation deteriorating further.
The good news is that this is not inevitable. The Institute of Physics (IoP) is meeting representatives of a number of interested parties in Ireland shortly to discuss this issue, and there may well be lessons to learn from England, which faced a similar predicament in 2001. Physics teacher recruitment had hovered at about 400 each year for the previous three decades, reaching an all-time low of 200. And entries for physics A-level had declined by 40 per cent in the 20 years to 2006. There was a worrying possibility of a permanent decline in physics teaching setting in.
Yet a decade on, both trends have reversed in England, with A-level numbers up by a third and physics teacher recruitment figures reaching an all-time high of 920 in 2012. What changed?
Firstly, marketing. The government agency charged with teacher recruitment was given a substantial marketing budget and adverts appeared on prime-time television promoting teaching as a profession. Teacher recruitment events were organised in major cities and telephone helplines were set up. The IoP developed its own programme of visits to university physics departments and extensive email campaigns, which persist to this day – with 430 prospective physics teachers personally contacted over the last academic year alone.
Secondly, a variety of financial incentives were offered to trainees, particularly in shortage subjects such as physics, chemistry and maths. The IoP pioneered a government-funded physics scholarship scheme, extended subsequently to chemistry, maths and other subjects. This currently disburses £28,000 per head to 140 physics trainees.
Thirdly, the government introduced new routes into teaching. The most successful of these from a physics perspective were six-month conversion courses known as subject knowledge enhancement (SKE) courses, undertaken before a student embarks on a one-year postgraduate teacher training course. The entrants are often mature students, from a wide range of subject backgrounds, from engineering to equine studies.
SKE courses proved very effective, contributing at peak to an increase in recruitment of about 200 physics teachers each year. Additionally, the IoP and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation supported participants with a programme of mentoring, something that continues successfully today.
Finally, and crucially, in 2011 the government set target numbers for biology, chemistry and physics for post-graduate initial teacher education courses to correct historic imbalances which had favoured biology at the expense of other sciences for more than two decades. At the time this flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which said that it was impossible to recruit sufficient physics candidates, and that the system would be better off by making do with biology specialists – but physics numbers again shot up.
The government also recognised that the shortages in physics specialists would take over a decade to correct even at the most optimistic projections – so that it needed to upskill the large number of biology and chemistry graduates who were and are tasked with teaching physics in many schools – a situation which has strong parallels in Ireland.
The department for education funded the stimulating physics network (SPN), run in England by the IoP since 2009. The core of the SPN project is focused, bespoke programmes of continuing professional development for teachers in a selected group of about 400 partner schools. The successes have been notable – in 2016, SPN schools saw an average increase of 31 per cent in the number of pupils choosing A-level physics, compared with the national average of 14 per cent.
Another important strand of our work has been to tackle the gender inequalities in physics uptake, through a whole-school approach to gender stereotyping and unconscious bias. In one intervention, the number of girls progressing to A-level physics trebled.
The Irish Government has already shown that, as with the general problem of teacher numbers, it takes the issue of gender imbalance seriously – and the IoP is working with Dublin City University on an improving gender balance pilot project, funded by Science Foundation Ireland, to look at solutions.
Chris Shepherd is teacher support manager at the Institute of Physics