Physics and Maths Teachers Needed!

The number of students taking physics A-level has been declining for twenty years. To counter this, the government has launched a campaign to recruit more physics and maths teachers. Lord Sainsbury proposes that physics in schools need not be taught by physics graduates, instead it could be taught by graduates in other subjects (he mentions material science) who do a conversion course.

At GCSE level, since most pupils take the double award General Science course, some of the modules are taught by non-specialists. How well does it work?

To my mind, not particularly well. In the case of my specialism, physics, it is obvious that many non-physicists, particularly biology graduates, are very uncomfortable teaching physics. Practicals are sometimes omitted and I sometimes have to explain the lesson to teachers before they teach it. To be fair to teachers, this is because they are being asked to teach subjects they are not qualified to teach. As a rule of thumb, you should have been trained to one level higher than that you propose to teach. In my case I am a physics graduate who studied maths to second year university level, have A-level chemistry and O-level biology. If I had a PGCSE and was a teacher, this means I could teach physics and maths to A-level, chemistry to GCSE and biology to Key Stage 3.

The problem is, of course, that I would have to teach biology to GCSE and would likely be as uncomfortable teaching it as non-physicists are teaching physics. Aren’t non-physicists going to be even more uncomfortable teaching physics at A-level?

Lord Sainsbury mentions material scientists as potential physics teachers but I rather think that they (and engineers) already know enough physics to teach it at school without having to take a conversion course. If anybody is persuaded by the financial incentives on offer to retrain it is likely to be chemistry and biology graduates.

If these courses contain considerably more content than the current “physics for non-specialists” short courses then they will be useful and will certainly make for more confident and better informed teaching at GCSE but to produce good A-level teachers they should bring the teacher to at least HND or first-year university level in physics. This will require full-time education away from the classroom. Will the Government be willing to pay for that?

Something else that needs to be paid for is equipment. My department has been keeping ancient equipment going for years but there is only so much that can be done. Many practicals cannot be done (particularly the ones that both teachers and students find interesting) because we don’t have the equipment. Having these practicals on offer would make the subject more interesting to teach and might attract more students to it.

The government might want to consider why it is so difficult to recruit and retain physics teachers. Part of the reason is that recent physics graduates can earn better money in other professions, and with less hassle. It’s not just the paperwork and endless government targets (which can keep teachers in school from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day – the era of the 9 to 4 working day is long gone), it’s the “students” themselves.

Disruption of lessons by unruly students are common, physical threats against staff are no longer rare events and they all know their rights but are unwilling to accept that others have rights. Part of the problem is parents who refuse to accept that their children’s behaviour is a problem and make life difficult for teachers who attempt to impose classroom discipline.

Training more physics teachers is a good idea but if the government wants to keep them in the profession they need to make the working environment and conditions better. This means tackling disruptive pupils, getting rid of parent-governors who use their position to interfere in the disciplinary process, renovating out-dated labs, providing more money for new equipment, and raising salaries.

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