Report Overview

This research brief assesses the provision of specialist science teaching in secondary schools, in the context of widening access to careers in STEM. Science teaching, particularly physics, continues to suffer from a recruitment problem in comparison with other school subjects, and this has consequences for teaching quality and uptake of science courses at GCSE and beyond.

Written by Philip Kirby and Carl Cullinane, the brief uses official statistics and new survey data to explore inequities in access to highly qualified teachers, highlighting the greater qualifications of teachers in the independent sector, secondary academies, and schools with low numbers of disadvantaged pupils. The lack of specialist physics teachers in particular is affecting access to ‘triple science’ for disadvantaged pupils, a key pathway to later careers in STEM. The brief finally looks at ways in which specialist science teaching could be more evenly distributed, and what could be done to mitigate inequalities in access.

Key findings
  • Specialist science teaching in English secondary schools suffers from a recruitment problem. While there are many excellent science teachers, there has been a consistent failure to attract the required number with relevant qualifications. Those who do train also tend to have lower than average qualifications compared to other teachers and science graduates.
  • This ‘science shortfall’ is particularly acute in physics. DfE figures show physics has the greatest recruitment shortage of the science subjects (five consecutive years of missed targets), the highest proportion of hours taught by non-specialists (25%), and the lowest teacher qualification levels (63% with a 2:1 at undergraduate level, compared to an undergraduate average of 76%). Only 51% of those who teach physics in secondary schools have a specialist degree or higher qualification.
  • New data collected for this report shows schools with the largest numbers of disadvantaged pupils are the least likely to have teachers with relevant science qualifications. In the 40% of schools with the most pupils entitled to free school meals, 76% of teachers have a qualification relevant to the main science subject they teach; in the 40% of schools with the lowest numbers of FSM pupils, this rises to 83%.

1. Further efforts need to be made to ensure that state school teachers have qualifications in the subjects they are teaching.
Evidence, including the Sutton Trust’s report What Makes Great Teaching, shows that the most effective teachers have deep subject knowledge. In the independent sector a higher proportion of teachers have relevant qualifications than in the state; these teachers are also more likely to possess qualifications of a higher academic level.
2. Incentives to address science teaching shortages should be targeted at schools in less advantaged areas.
Schemes like Teach First and Brilliant Club have contributed to teachers with high levels of subject knowledge teaching in disadvantaged areas. To consolidate this, the Government should do more to target teaching incentives in these areas, perhaps trialling this approach in their new Opportunity Areas.
3. In schools with shortages of physics teachers or none at all, local authorities or Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) should encourage teachers from other schools to offer continuous professional development (CPD) courses.
Understanding how to teach a subject well can be as important as a formal qualification in that subject. However, in schools or areas lacking specialists, best practice knowledge exchange is less likely. MATs and local authorities could mitigate the effects of unequal access to these networks by pooling resources from other schools to encourage the professional development of non-specialists.