Brent headteacher's physics comments rile science board

Katharine Birbalsingh CBE, head teacher of Michaela Community School. Picture: Claudia Rose Carter

Katharine Birbalsingh CBE, head teacher of Michaela Community School. Picture: Claudia Rose Carter - Credit: Claudia Rose Carter

The “UK’s strictest headteacher” has suggested girls are unlikely to pursue physics because they don’t like “hard maths”.

Katharine Birbalsingh, who leads Michaela Community School in Wembley, told MPs that, based on her experience, girls “don’t like” subjects such as physics.

She said around 16 per cent of pupils at her school who choose physics for A level were girls, compared to 22pc nationally, as it was not a subject they “tend to fancy”. Ms Birbalsingh added that she would not campaign for this figure to go up – suggesting girls “do what they want to do”, despite calls for more diversity in science.

She told a committee of MPs: “Just from my own knowledge of these things, physics isn’t something that girls tend to fancy. They don’t want to do it. I just think they don’t like it. There’s a lot of hard maths in there that I think that they would rather not do. That’s not to say there isn’t hard stuff to do in biology and chemistry – there is, but it’s not mathematical.”

Ms Birbalsingh said she was “not an expert” when it comes to why fewer girls choose to take physics, but that research shows it is “a natural thing”.

She added her school has an “excellent standard of teaching” across all subjects, with girls there performing well in physics at GCSE level. 

The Institute of Physics said it was “alarmed” by Ms Birbalsingh’s comments. Its deputy chief executive, Rachel Youngman, said: “The Institute of Physics is very concerned at the continued use of outdated stereotypes as we firmly believe physics is for everyone.

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“We need to listen to the experiences of young people before making assumptions. Young people themselves, including many girls, tell us they face barriers to studying physics because of who they are.”

She added her organisation is actively trying to encourage all young people to take up sciences and has called for more specialist teachers.

Ms Birbalsingh, who chairs the Department for Education’s social mobility commission, has previously hit the headlines with her hardline approach. This includes a boot camp where kids are taught to keep their shirts tucked in, pick up crumbs after eating and learn how to “behave in the Michaela way”. 

Ms Birbalsingh has been approached for further comment.