Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Making Waves: how physics is being transformed

Published By: The Independent - 03 Sep 2009

School physics is in meltdown. Trained physics teachers are so thin on the ground they are almost invisible. Schools limp along by drafting in maths or chemistry teachers to struggle with a subject they are not trained to teach. The number of pupils taking A level physics is tiny. But now a radical new idea has come along that could change all that by making exciting, top-notch physics teaching available to all pupils in the UK.

It all started three years ago when a retired British Council executive with a background in physics heard a talk at the Royal Society about the poor uptake of the subject by young people and thought: why not get schools to pool their resources and set up well-equipped “physics factories” where students could be taught in an stimulating, hands-on way?

“Everyone I took the idea to said they thought there was something in it,” says Jim Whittell, who was in charge of operations in Europe for the British Council before he retired, “so I went to talk to a couple of education authorities. But I really thought they would say ‘Well, who the hell are you?’ And of course I’m nobody. I’m yesterday’s breakfast.”

But they didn’t. And last winter, in Birmingham, the very first Physics Factory got underway, not in a factory, but in a spare laboratory in a co-educational grammar school, on the edge of the city.

The Physics Factory, based in the King Edward VI Five Ways School, in Bartley Green, is a collaboration between the school and the local authority, and is concentrating on teaching GCSE pupils -- and their teachers -- with the aim of encouraging more students to take A level. It has already had 300 pupils and teachers through its doors and expects to be teaching 100 GCSE pupils a week next year. It also has the potential for multiple other uses – leasing the space to schools for their own teaching, teaching pupils and teachers together, laying on exam booster classes, and being a hub for outreach work in other schools.

“There’s a real sense of excitement and enthusiasm about this,” says David Wheeldon, the school’s head. “And we are very well placed here to reach the whole region. We are right by the motorway and have Birmingham., Worcestershire, Warwickshire and the Black Country on our doorstep. We have donated the space and helped with the setting up, and we have money for the first two years, so it is not a leap in the dark -- but it is a leap of faith.”

In fact, money remains a big worry because, although financial help for the Physics Factory idea has been given by national supporters, Birmingham companies have not yet shown much enthusiasm for helping with the estimated £100,000 a year running costs.

“But we had to kick start it,” says Patrick Amieli, the school’s assistant head and director of specialist status. “If we waited for the money, nothing would get done.”

The Factory is equipped with modern, but simple classroom teaching equipment and run by an enthusiastic specialist, Philip Jones, the director of learning who, with a grin, warns universities to watch out. “They are going to be inundated by a flood of enthusiastic physics students!”

On the day that The Independent visits it is the last day of the summer term and 15 young graduates are getting a week-long Physics Enhancement Programme before they start their post-graduate teacher training in September. All are science specialists and some have worked in industry or done post-graduate research, but their level of physics knowledge is astonishingly low and Rob Price, a science consultant and charismatic teacher, often has to correct them. “Thank you for being brave enough to share your misconceptions. This is a supportive space where we are all learning together.”

He leads them through an intense morning of experiments with light and sound. They consider how a lightbulb in a dark room helps someone read, and how to measure the speed at which sound travels. “We’re doing six years of physics in six days,” he says, as he talks students through their hands-on practicals and scatters his teaching with classroom tips. “ Life is too short to teach kids how to use a protractor…If you want to buy mirrors, go to B & Q and buy mirror tiles….” Lifting up a cardboard pinhole camera he suggests that they encourage their pupils to make one at home. “This is what we want to see for homework. Not: ‘Here’s a worksheet.’ There’s a lot of science that can be done at home.”

“This is great. It’s more practical-based and more fun. We get to see and do, so we get to really understand,” says Waqas Latie, 25, who has a Masters degree in biochemistry. Aisha Khan, 21, agrees, “With this you learn a lot and it also shows you how to teach it.”

Birmingham was able to get going fast on this because the local authority was already actively working to beef up science teaching in schools. “Twelve months ago we were inviting ourselves into schools with a car boot-full of equipment that we had begged or borrowed,” says Phil Jones. “We are so glad to have a place we can call home.”

“This will make such a difference now, in Birmingham schools, with Birmingham teachers,” says the local authority’s senior science adviser, John Booth. “It is all bespoke work, every minute of it. We’ve got the whole curriculum aspect mapped. Teachers will see that we don’t offer candyfloss. We offer courses that say ‘This will help with lessons four, five and six on module three of GSCE physics.’ And then they can go to their heads and say ‘If you want your exam results to stay the same, don’t let me go on this course!’”

Another Physics Factory, in south London, is getting off the ground more slowly with the intention of concentrating on A level students, while concepts for further Physics Factories are on the drawing board in Reading and Hackney.

“It’s little by little, and everyone will come at it in their own way, but I think there is a feeling that teachers are sick and tired of being told what to do from the top and this allows things to go the other way,” says Jim Whittell. “ It’s just a way of encouraging schools in any area to work together to create teams to offer experiment-based learning.”

“It is definitely the case that the people who understand the problem best are going to be the people with the best solution,” agrees Beth Taylor, of the Institute of Physics, pointing out that the shortage of qualified physics teachers is a major issue and is going to undergo a step change as teachers come up to retirement. “So we think this is a great initiative, and are always supportive of any schemes that encourage good physics teaching and help to train non-specialist teachers.”

However all will depend on what financial and political clout the Physics Factory programme is able to muster. The Ogden Trust, the Gatsby Trust and Pearson Publications have all put money into the launch programmes, and Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, is said to be enthusiastic. But in Birmingham, where educational enthusiasm for the Physics Factory is off the graph, there is no doubt that a fat cheque or two would help put its future on a firmer footing.