Head of Sixth Form Mr Griffiths discusses Physics teaching and STEM at St Mary's Sixth Form
As Head of Sixth Form and a Physics teacher at St Mary’s, Robin Griffiths spends much time teaching STEM and advising about STEM pathways and placements. Having worked in education for more than a decade before joining St Mary’s in 2019, as well as having spent two years as the Head of the Institute of Physics’ Teacher Support Programme, Robin holds a wealth of experience in STEM provision and its challenges. We caught up with Robin for British Science Week to discuss his love of Physics, his experiences as a teacher, some of the challenges facing his field today, and how St Mary’s Sixth Form helps students make the most of STEM subjects.
A graduate of Imperial College, and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, Robin was first attracted to the subject at an early age: ‘I always loved Physics at school not just because it grappled with the big questions, like where the universe comes from, but because it covers the small questions that bamboozle you, like why some of the light hitting a window reflects off it, while some of it passes through. It helps you to think about and question experiences of the world that you may have taken for granted previously. What is also exciting about Physics is that it’s a frontier science, so what we teach is often new and always developing. I’ll be teaching new discoveries at A Level that were not known about just a few years earlier.’
Indeed, Mr Griffiths attributes his decision to teach to his desire to communicate and share this fascination with others. Mr Griffiths first taught at Saffron Walden County High School in 2007, where he progressed to Head of Physics, remaining there until 2017. This also allowed him first-hand experience of some of the difficulties of teaching Physics, including the shortage of Physics teachers in the UK and its impact on education. With a shortage of Physics specialists in teaching, especially in state schools, Mr Griffiths observed that many teachers from other backgrounds were struggling to teach the subject.
This motivated Mr Griffiths to share his own knowledge and to address the gap in specialism in his next steps, as he joined the Institute of Physics as the Head of their Teacher Support Programme in 2017. There, he worked on government projects that looked to address the lack of Physics teachers. Ultimately, he chose to address this lack practically by returning to the classroom in 2019, when he joined St Mary’s.
Despite a disrupted start to teaching over the pandemic, Mr Griffiths has found much to love about teaching at St Mary’s. ‘The girls here are fantastic. They’re always keen to learn and enthusiastic. It’s wonderful because every lesson is focused and they love to hear new ideas, build up their understanding, and achieve fantastic results. My colleagues across the whole school are fabulous, and you know that if you’re having a bad day, there will be someone there to swap kind words and lift you up again. I feel lucky to get to teach my subject in such a supportive, first-rate environment.’
As Head of Sixth Form, Mr Griffiths feels equally strongly about our A Level STEM provisions. When asked what makes our environment so special for STEM, Mr Griffiths said,
‘We have a thriving A Level science programme, and the sciences prove popular choices here. Every year we have lots of students who not only take STEM A Levels, but also who apply to study STEM at university too, including at Oxbridge colleges. This year I’m proud to report that a student will be taking up an unconditional offer at Oxford to study Chemistry, and we usually have a few students taking up places to read Medicine too.’
‘Our success is built on our superb facilities, and the opportunities that we offer here. To take one example, the Youth STEM Award, a Sixth Form enrichment opportunity, gives students a chance to keep up with the world of science, whether planning a STEM career or not. And I’m especially proud that our Sixth Form STEM students get involved with younger years in the school, to help bring on their science education.’
‘This would not be possible without our fantastic labs and facilities. We have two labs for each science, and they’re well-equipped and up to date – not the kind of classroom that’s furnished with dusty wooden furniture, where you wouldn’t be surprised to find Charles Darwin lurking in the corner, but bright, modern, and airy.’
‘Because we have small class sizes, students also don’t have to share equipment, so we can make the experience of sciences at A Level very practical-focused. The sciences are practical subjects at heart, and if you’re not doing practical work, you’re not doing it right. We’re very fortunate that our students can fully experience science subjects as they should be understood. What’s more, we have specialised technicians, one per each science, to help prepare facilities and run experiments.’
While Mr Griffiths clearly enjoys his teaching at St Mary’s, one recent experience stood out: ‘Last year, it was lovely to work with a student who went on to study Architecture at university. Her A Level subjects included Physics and Art, and she was brilliant, getting A*s in both. This struck me as a uniquely ‘St Mary’s’ combination, as there are not that many schools in which this happens – where students succeed across such varied subjects – and it was a real high point.’
For Mr Griffiths, this is also one of the most satisfying parts of his role as Head of Sixth Form: ‘seeing a student take their first steps into their independent life is genuinely inspiring, even if it sounds a bit cliched.’
That so many students also take a science subject at A Level at St Marys, even when planning different university or career paths, is also testament to the quality of the teaching, which helps make the sciences fun and engaging. Indeed, Mr Griffiths is always questioning how best to teach his subject. The issues raised during his time at the Institute of Physics remain close to his heart, also inspiring The Physics Teaching Podcast.
‘One of problems that we were exploring at the Institute was how to get more Physics graduates into teaching, and how to support those who didn’t specialise in Physics. In state schools, most of those who teach physics aren’t specialists, and even with the best will in the world, they can find themselves at a bit of a loss as to how to teach this subject. After so many conversations about it with a friend that I taught with 10 years ago, Thomas W-P, we decided to set up a podcast to celebrate and support Physics teachers across the country. We wanted it to be short and engaging. We joked about it being the best continuing professional development for teachers that you could fit into your morning commute.’
While they originally tailored the podcast to a UK audience, listeners now tune in from across the globe. Their content has grown to reflect this, and they have met and talked to teachers and education experts from all over the world, from Peru to America. Mr Griffiths reports that he is most proud of the ‘Ways to Teach’ episodes, which the downloads show his audience finds most useful, and the blog posts that have developed out of this series.
Now in its fourth season, Mr Griffiths continues to shape the podcast around teachers’ needs and current issues in the field. A recent episode, for example, focuses on ‘Girls into Physics’. While girls outnumber and outperform boys in most sciences at A Level, Physics is a STEM subject that still has a comparatively low take-up among girls for A Level and beyond, with girls making up only roughly 20% of the field. Mr Griffiths reflected on this issue and the impact that single-sex education can have on Physics:
‘There’s a great need to address the gender bias in Physics, and I do see a difference in teaching at a single-sex school. As we found at the Institute of Physics, the uptake for Physics at A Level is higher at girls’ schools than in co-ed ones, which makes a great case for single-sex education. Until we crack society-wide stereotypes about who can or should do which subjects, anything that eradicates that gap is worthwhile. That those girls who do Physics at A Level outperform boys just shows what nonsense the stereotypes are.’
To any students considering taking Physics for A Level, Mr Griffiths says, ‘go for it! There are a lot of myths around the subject (too hard, too much maths etc.) but this is not true. Yes, there are some mathematical techniques needed but once you have mastered them there are no big surprises, and as for it being hard, Physics awards as many A* grades as any other subject, so it is no more difficult. What it will do is challenge you to think differently about the world, which can be unsettling at times, but even this is an excellent skill to pick up in a changing world.’
You can find out more about Physics at St Mary's Sixth Form here.