How to Recruit a Physics Teacher

Plenty could be done to relieve the Physics teacher shortage, but no-one in power really wants to solve the problem.

The Problem

A recent open evening at my college produced plenty of potential students to start Physics A Level next year, but there was a distinctive pattern in their origin: very many of them were currently at two schools on the other side of town and these talked enthusiastically about their current Physics teacher. However, there were hardly any from the very large comprehensive just a few hundred metres up the road (or indeed from several other close schools.)

Without being able to talk to those non-attenders, I cannot be sure, but one likely reason stands out. There is no Physics teacher at the school, and there hasn't been one for years.

Now, this is by no means uncommon. A major report on the supply and retention of Physics teachers published in the summer by The Centre for Education and Employment Research said
it was possible to predict with 84% accuracy whether a school would have any physics specialists, essentially from whether it had a sixth form, its region, whether it had specialist status in science, engineering or technology, and the ability of its pupils as indicated by GCSE results.

Few schools with high ability children, low eligibility for free school meals and low special needs were without a physics specialist, but this was true of over half those with poor GCSE results and a high intake with special needs. Of the school types, grammars, voluntary controlled and faith schools tended to come off best, and small schools worst.
My area has secondary schools up to age 16, with a sixth form college for the 16-18 age group. One school with a sixth form in a town close by has a full complement of Physics teachers, as does my sixth form college, though I think that each of the local 11-16 schools has few or none. I say 'I think', because it is difficult to find out without contacts in the schools: they don't exactly advertise the fact on their websites, especially now most of them offer 'separate sciences', including GCSE Physics. It would be embarrassing. What they do claim, however, is that they have no science teacher vacancies. I am suspicious of this practice, though, since the secondaries with sixth forms elsewhere in the county are content to publish a staff list complete with their specialisms (Biology, Chemistry or Physics) instead of the generic Science Teacher label. See my previous post on this problem: Biologists Shouldn't Teach Physics.


Physics teachers, naturally, can make good use or their rarity. As most schools in the country are in want of a Physics teacher, they can pick and choose their school. A large proportion of Physics teachers want the intellectual stimulus of some A Level teaching and a good working environment, leaving 11-16 schools, especially in large urban areas where behaviour can be a problem, in a difficult position. The same report adds that
…turnover and moves to other schools were somewhat higher for physics specialists than for teachers in the other core subjects. The main driver of wastage in physics is retirement, which contributes a quarter of the total turnover and half the wastage. Nearly three times as many physics leavers as biology leavers were aged over 50. Some of the retirements were normal age, but most were premature, often stemming from a sense of dissatisfaction. About half the physics teachers were resigning to go to other state schools. The main reasons were promotion, re-location and wanting to get away from their present school.
This picking and choosing means that school are in a stiff competition for these people. But they often do not compete, so their pupils lose out.


In many other industries the shortage would be eased but matching the rewards to the importance and difficulty of recruitment, but as national pay bargaining with the unions rules out differential pay, schools must be imaginative:

  • Create 'Physics and Maths' posts and the associated training courses, to allow teachers to avoid having to teach the other sciences. Biology teaching is not very popular with Physics graduates - a quarter of Physics qualified trainees abandon physics to teach Maths.

  • Offer posts with responsibility. These come with extra money, and can be tailored to keep the burden low.

  • Make more use of the discretionary payments that are already allowed for recruitment and retention purposes, but which are rarely used.

  • Bite the bullet, and advertise higher salaries for Physics teachers willing to teach in schools that cannot otherwise attract applicants. This should encourage the small number of teachers spread out more evenly and according to demand.

  • Lastly, encourage more Physics graduates into teaching by moving to a fully differential pay structure.

Why are the first three points not used more often to ease shortages?

I suspect head teachers are keen to believe that all science teachers should be able to teach all the sciences. This is obviously untrue, but is a popular conceit (I have only come across one non-Physics colleague who could understand Newton's First Law of Motion, for example, despite that topic being an integral part of the balanced science curriculum taught by non-specialists to all 11-year-olds).

The final two points provide the only reliable medium to long term solution for the the crisis. However, the educational establishment, such as it is, has followed the tradition of being politically rather left of centre, and there is a strong feeling that all teachers should be treated equally. The leftist teaching unions, which have a strong interest in solving the problem of chronic specialist teacher shortages, reject the dilution of their power in national pay bargaining negotiations, are the main stumbling block on the way to ending the crisis in state schools, even the new City Academies which have flexibility in their pay awards.

Independent schools can already compete financially for teachers - how many of these schools are short of a Physics master - so extending the market in teachers to state comprehensive could reverse the long decline in specialist Physics teacher recruitment.

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