Physics still a major concern

Just how bad is the situation in Physics this year when it comes to applications for teacher training?Before answering that question it is worth recalling the situation in the spring of last year.  During March last year I reported on this blog that on the 15th March 2013 only 4% of the ‘salaried’ School Direct places for Physics were shown as ‘unavailable’, as were just 6% of the ‘non-salaried’ Physics ‘Training’ places. That was a total of 29 places out of 572 on offer for Physics shown as ‘unavailable’, and presumably, therefore, filled in March 2013.

I thought that I would have a go at repeating the exercise this year. The unified UCAS application system makes tracking less of a challenge than the DfE system in use last year, and with a bit of cross-checking against the NCTL allocations list that appeared recently, I think I have been able to make a fair stab at the position as of 11th April, some three weeks later than last year, and without the interference of Easter.

The NCTL identified some 263 salaried and 587 tuition places available for Physics 2014 through School Direct according to the allocations spreadsheet I have used. There were also no doubt some places for Physics and Mathematics, but I have ignored those for this exercise. Allowing for some anomalies between UCAS and NCTL regarding tuition fee and salaried routes, my estimates suggest no more than 10 of the 263 Salaried places are current ‘unavailable’ – some 3.8% compared with 4% last year at a date three weeks previously. Similarly, the tuition fee route appears to have some 31 places ‘unavailable’ out of 587 – some 5.28% – compared with 6% in last year’s analysis for March. However, 13 of the 31 places ‘unavailable’ are located in just two schools, one of which has been showing ‘no vacancies’ for some time. It would be helpful if both Whitmore High School in London and Sandringham School in St Albans could share with others how they have been so successful in attracting trainee Physics teachers. But, at least the overall numbers recruited to date are slightly higher than last year, even if the percentages are similar because of the extra places available through School Direct, albeit the total is just 38 this year compared with 29 at a point three weeks earlier in 2013. However, thanks to a Rumsfeldian ‘known unknown’ there are a 100 or so Salaried places, and slightly more than 300 tuition fee places that might have been filed in schools awarded more than one place. Any of these places filled cannot be distinguished from the figures this year.

In view of the fact that overall the UCAS data showed that 26% of the Teacher Supply Model figure of 853 trainees (the level of suggested need) were shown as ‘under offer’ of one sort or another on 17th March it would seem likely that higher education and SCITT providers have achieved higher rates of filled places in Physics  in the current recruitment round when compared with School Direct unless the there are lots of filled places in the ‘known unknown’ schools with more than one place on offer. If it is the case that higher education and SCITT have filled a greater proportion of their places so far, and the situation does not change by the end of the recruitment round, then it must reopen the debate about the usefulness of a training model that fails to fill places available.

Now the issue, as it was last year, may well be around what is the acceptable quality of a trainee? Pitch the standard  too high, and there won’t be enough trainees, and next year some schools won’t be able to recruit a Physics teacher – assuming the TSM calculations are anywhere near correct. Pitch the standard too low, and the quality of new teachers won’t be good enough.

To my mind this is an issue where government needs to provide a clear steer to the sector so that when Ofsted calls everyone can be judged by the same standards. Otherwise, the advice to higher education must be: play safe and don’t take a candidate you think a school wouldn’t offer a School Direct place to. If that further reduces supply, so be it.

What is very clear now is that, at least in Physics, we are heading for the same outcome as last year when the required number (note not a target) wasn’t reached unless there is a swift and dramatic change in acceptances, and probably applications. This is especially as at the 17th March there were only 200 applications not covered by offers in the UCAS system, including those declined places.



3 thoughts on “Physics still a major concern

  1. Certainly a concern, an on-going one, and a serious one. Here are a few random thoughts. I’m not sure how confident one can be that ‘unavailable’ on UCAS is a timely proxy for filled places compared to last year. The switch to the new UCAS system has made the recruitment process more difficult for providers (lots of time spent interviewing good applicants fully intending to go elsewhere) and it’s possible to make an offer and then have to wait several weeks for applicants to confirm or reject it. During this time, the place won’t be closed to new applicants. Whether this compensates for your analysis and Easter being later this year, I have no idea. SD is definitely slower for us than Core/Provider because we often have delays in the paperwork after the alliance makes a verbal offer whereas our Core offers are probably on UCAS within a few days of an interview, and of course there are more SDs this year. I also think there may have been a few alliances got their fingers burned last year taking on non-physicists for physics places, or academically able trainees that couldn’t develop teaching skills fast enough – they may be recruiting more cautiously this year. That’s very anecdotal though. For us, recruitment for Physics with Maths is well ahead of Physics; this is because the changes to SKE funding (i.e. only Grade 1 providers knew they were going to get any before mid-October) have devasted Physics recruitment via SKE because last year we couldn’t offer places for this year’s SKE to final year undergrads with biology and chemistry degrees once our biology and chem allocations were filled. Also Physics with Maths is attracting physicists and engineers that really don’t want to teach biology and chemistry – there seem to be plenty of these about although the quality of applicants is very mixed. My feeling is that, apart from increasing the bursaries even further, the key to recruitment is engaging with physics undergrads, 6th formers, and younger pupils. I would like to see the IoP, on the back of all the ‘Girls into Physics’ and careers work they’ve done, promoting physics teaching as a socially useful and fantastically rewarding science career but I think most of the leg-work has to be done by HEIs, hard though it is to add to an already lengthy ‘to-do’ list. By the way, your work on raising the profile of this issue is massively appreciated.

    • Thank you for your helpful comments. If anything, the fact that a candidate can hold more than one offer might make the figures an over-estimate. It really depends upon the point at which a provider puts up the ‘no vacancies’ flag on their site. Is this when they have made offers for all places – even if some might be rejected – or only when they are certain it is not worth continuing the recruitment process any longer. The small number in the UCAS data shown on 17th March not having received one sort of offer or another is the most worrying statistic as it presumably shows those rejected and those yet to make it to interview. I find your comments about Physics and Maths interesting and it chimes with a study I did over a decade a go for the then TTA. Somewhere, and I cannot now recall whether it was on this blog, I have written about a modern apprenticeship in physics teaching for those with grades not good enough for the Russell Group universities who might be lost to Physics and Physics teaching under present arrangements. Certainly food for thought for the IoP.

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