So what’s wrong with Welsh physics?

You’ll have seen in Tom Allen’s previous posts that we’re going to be sharing plenty of data through this platform. In Wales we have particular concerns about pupil performance and progression in a nation that has some of the most profound socio-economic problems in the UK.

Wales’s lacklustre performance in the OECD PISA tests, as well as underperformance at GCSE and A-level in comparison to our UK neighbours, has been an ongoing problem for the nation and a thorn in the side of the Welsh Government.

The Welsh education system is now taking a different path to England. Leighton Andrews and Michael Gove were never going to be exchanging Christmas cards, and their differing worldviews were reflected in their approach to education. It was under their respective leadership that Wales and England parted ways in the qualifications arena. Soon we won’t be able to make direct comparisons across the border as examinations will be different, so it is a good time to reflect on recent performance.

Below you can see the percentage offset for grade achievement for Wales vs the whole of the UK (the difference in percentage of the cohort achieving each grade). This graph uses the aggregated 2010–14 results sets from the JCQ. On the left is the offset across all subjects, while physics-specific data is on the right. Broad underperformance in Wales (especially in A*/A achievement) is significantly amplified in physics.


Despite faring worse in A-levels, Welsh students don’t appear to perform significantly worse than their UK counterparts in progression to university. Comparing UCAS numbers for Welsh domiciled applicants to physics courses reveals equivalent acceptance rates for Welsh students at their main choices, and slightly higher acceptance rates when you factor in clearance places. There are a few possible explanations of this: less ambitious university applications from Welsh students, better targeted applications, or more realistic predicted grades may all factor in.

So what’s wrong with Welsh physics? We could speculate on causes but the answer is almost certainly a complicated mix of factors. The IOP is taking important steps to support excellence in physics teaching in Wales, and with Welsh Government support we are running the Stimulating Physics Network in Wales at 48 Welsh schools this academic year. In the short term there is no magic fix for these problems, but through schemes like this we can offer support to those who are teaching the subject and begin to redress some of the issues facing Welsh physics.

I would appreciate your thoughts on this data in the comments. How do people anticipate the new qualifications offering in Wales affecting the patterns highlighted above? And what, if anything, can be done to redress the imbalance?

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