Science Shortfall

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. More schools, particularly in urban areas, should take the opportunity where they are responsible for their own admissions to introduce random allocation (ballots) or banding to ensure that a wider mix of pupils has access to the most academically successful comprehensives. Reducing the emphasis on geographical proximity will allow fairer access to the best schools and limit socially divisive incentives for house buying and gaming the system. Ballots can ensure a wider mix of pupils have the possibility of attending the best schools, and banding can help to secure school intakes reflecting a wide range of ability. With school accountability measurement changing to a ‘value added’ approach, this reduces the incentives for admissions policies biased towards high prior attainment, and provides an opportunity for a change of emphasis in this regard.
  2. Banding is most effective when a co-operative agreement can be reached between schools in an area. Local co-ordination could be achieved through a local admissions forum, or brokered through the local authority. Groups of schools should thus be encouraged to develop a shared approach to admissions.
  3. Ballots can be used in conjunction with catchment areas to improve the diversity of intake. One way of using random allocation, while making sure that those who live very close to schools are not unduly disadvantaged, could be to introduce both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ catchment areas. However, using either banding or ballots in isolation may be more effective than using both in combination.
  4. Information availability and willingness to go the extra mile often has significant effects on access to better schools. The Government should find ways – working with community groups, consumer agencies and businesses that are successful in working class communities – to make it easier for all parents to access a range of information to facilitate informed choice-making over their children’s education. This is particularly important with the implementation of the new accountability measures and imminent changes to GCSE grading.
  5. It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but of their rights to free transport to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for Free School Meals.
  6. Faith Schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils. The government has mooted lifting the restrictions on the proportion of pupils new faith schools can select on the basis of religious faith (currently 50%). As our report demonstrates, faith schools are already among the most socially selective of schools, and lifting this restriction is likely to make them even more unrepresentative of their local areas, reducing the number of good school places available to pupils across the socio-economic spectrum. The admissions process for faith schools should instead be opened up so that their admissions are fairer and begin to reflect their local population, while maintaining their ethos.