physics is hard, and that's a good thing

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

While I was away in France, the annual fracas over improved A level results broke out. Now, I know where I stand on this; I know people who work and teach in Higher Education and they’re seeing a decline in the educational quality of freshers, not an improvement.

Here’s an article by Boris Johnson on the subject that I heartily agree with called Physics at A Level:

We must stop this flight from the crunchy subjects, not just because it is slowly denuding the country of scientists – it is hardly surprising that 30 per cent of university Physics departments have closed in the past eight years, when the number of Physics candidates at A-level has slumped from 46,606 in 1985 to 28,119 in 2005.

We must stop this disaster because we are cutting the roots of our civilisation: when I think what has happened to Latin and Greek and modern languages in the maintained sector, I alternate between rage and black depression.

His description of the difficulty of understanding a Physics class reminds me all too clearly of my time studying Physics at Imperial College. However. the principal point is that Cambridge is saying that potential students must have at least two A levels in “crunchy” (ie rigorous) subjects to be considered for entry. It’s the first. Others will follow, and then employers will start to take the same approach. We’ll soon see a two tier systems of A levels, with some considered serious and others, less so. It’s much the same as already exists with degrees. People know that a 2:1 from Oxbridge or the bigger London colleges is superior to the same degree from a lesser university, even if there’s nothing in the degree certificate to prove that. In fact, I’ve known editors who would point blank refuse to employ anyone with a media studies degree because they come in with a head full of irrelevant theory, a lack of intellectual rigour and a lack of any practical experience.

The reality is that you can pack as many people as possible into the grade A category, but both academia and business need a way to differentiate the very good from the good or average, and they’ll find it if the A level fails to offer it.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.