A Progress Report on 16-19 Maths Free Schools


Andrey Kolmogorov courtesy of Svjo

Andrey Kolmogorov courtesy of Svjo

Written on the eve of the 2013 Budget, this post is a progress report on the development of a network of selective 16-19 maths free schools, set in the wider context of the economic arguments for investment in gifted education.

I don’t anticipate a postscript detailing substantive new policy announcements within the Chancellor’s Budget Statement tomorrow. Nor is it likely that further support will be directed towards this existing initiative, given that little of the existing budget has been used up to date.

I set out below the information currently in the public domain and offer a provisional yet constructive assessment of how the 16-19 maths free school project is shaping up.


Announcement of 16-19 Maths Free Schools

Back in November 2011 I devoted a post to the announcement of the introduction of a cadre of selective 16-19 maths free schools in England, as outlined in the Chancellor’s 2011 Autumn Statement.

A proportion of a £600m allocation to meet the capital costs of 100 free schools was notionally earmarked for ‘New Maths Free Schools for 16-18 year-olds’ to be ‘supported by strong university maths departments and academics‘.

The announcement suggested these would be:

‘Exactly what Britain needs to match our competitors – and produce more of the engineering and science graduates so important for our longer term economic success.’

Well-informed press reports prior to the announcement suggested that there would be at least 12 schools and the resulting network would serve as a model that might be extended to other subjects.

It was suggested that the first would be located in major cities. Some might focus solely on maths and others on a wider STEM curriculum but they would all prepare students to excel at top universities and in subsequent IT, academic or entrepreneurial careers.

Assuming a network of 12 schools and £6m per school, the capital funding notionally set aside for this purpose amounts to £72 million. This is presumably available until the end of the current spending review cycle, so would have to be allocated by Spring 2015 at the latest.


Progress since the Announcement

We are now some 16 months on from the announcement and, with almost exactly two years until the end of the spending review period, we are probably about 40% through the project as currently funded.

So it seemed timely to review progress to date.

A handful of 16-19 free schools with a STEM specialism are in the pipeline – including what is now called the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form in Norwich and STEM6 in Camden, London. But these are slightly different animals, falling outside the project under discussion because they are not supported by university maths departments.

We know from a FAQ briefing published by DfE that:

‘The common feature of all specialist maths Free Schools is significant involvement from a university maths department. Universities can apply to set up a specialist maths Free School on their own, or in partnership with another strong education provider. Similar specialist maths schools, with significant input from universities, already operate in the United States, Russia and China.’

The development of these institutions is described as ‘a pathfinder programme’, which explicitly implies that the model may be extended if successful.

Interested universities are invited to submit brief proposals to a specialist support team whose home page says:

‘Maths is a strategic priority in education and is at the heart of improving our society and economy. This country has some brilliant university maths departments and world-famous mathematicians, but they have become disconnected from schools, school curriculums and exams.

The new specialist maths schools aim to bridge the gap between school and university maths, and in doing so, demonstrate how new approaches can bring dramatic improvements in performance that can be applied more widely.’

Applications are invited to open further schools ‘in September 2014 and beyond’.

I say further because a January 2013 press release celebrates the first two successful applications, submitted by King’s College London and the University of Exeter in the South-West.

This tells us that:

‘The ultimate aim is to create a network of schools that operate across England which identify and nurture mathematical and scientific talent. This is similar to the Russian model, which includes the renowned Kolmogorov School in Moscow, established by Andrei Kolmogorov – one of the 20th century’s most respected mathematicians.’

The shift from discussion of a network to a single Russian school is something of a logical non-sequitur, and it is not clear why Kolmogorov is singled out when there are so many alternative models worldwide.

The Kolmogorov theme is further developed in a TES story from February 2012 which reports that:

‘The DfE has hosted a consultation meeting on the new free schools with interested parties from the mathematical community in order to outline its plans.

Professor Alexandre Borovik, an expert on selective maths schools who teaches at the University of Manchester, attended the meeting and was encouraged by the government’s plans.

“So far, it has been only independent schools that have been able to produce mathematicians on anything like a similar scale, but there has been nothing like it in the state sector,” Professor Borovik said. “To see whether it can be done, you really have to be very selective and go down the route of what was successful in Eastern Europe and Russia.”’

The press release also places this initiative in the context of ‘the government’s strategy to increase universities’ involvement in what pupils learn before applying for a university place’ and wider plans ‘to boost maths education’.

The mid-section of this post draws together currently available information about the two live projects.


From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix


King’s College London Mathematics School (KCLMS)


Press Release

King’s College (KCL) published a press release on 14 December 2012 confirming that it had received a development grant for its planned school which would open in September 2014.

I note in passing that the Department’s FAQ briefing contains the following Q and A:

Is there financial support available to develop our plans?

Not at the beginning. Once we have approved a proposal, we do offer some support to cover the costs of project management, and recruiting some staff before the school opens, in the same way we would for any Free School.’

which would suggest that the development grants made available for the first two projects are not available to support new proposals.

KCL’s press release suggests that the school will contribute to the Government’s plans:

‘to improve mathematics education in the state sector and increase the number of mathematically talented young people with the right levels of attainment to study STEM subjects at top-rated universities…

…It will aim to cater for students who have both exceptional ability in Mathematics and an intense interest in the subject, and to allow them to study with a critical mass of students with a similar passion for Mathematics.’

There is a quotation from Secretary of State Michael Gove:

‘I am delighted that King’s College London is going to open a specialist maths Free School. If we are to find a future Fields Medallist in our schools, we have to raise standards in maths teaching and create an environment that allows the most gifted to flourish…’

The release explains that:

  • The Project involves KCL’s Department of Educational and Professional Studies as well as its Department of Mathematics and is led by Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management, perhaps best known as author of the Wolf Review of Vocational Education, commissioned by the Government shortly after it came to power.
  • KCL has also been awarded ‘an outreach grant’ by DfE ‘to support work with mathematically talented 14-16 year-olds in schools without high levels of specialist Mathematics teaching’. This builds on an existing programme called The King’s Factor  targeted at Years 12-13. It implies that the outreach programme will be used to ‘talent spot’ potential candidates and act as a feeder for the new free school.
  • The school is likely to be located close to KCL’s Waterloo Campus ‘a transport hub easily reached from a very large part of the greater London area. The school will therefore be able to draw on a wide catchment area in which there are large numbers of prospective high-attaining students.’


Web Pages

KCL’s website also has a set of pages devoted to the new School which adds a few additional snippets of information.

It says the University announced the new school on 14 November, a month before the date of the press release. I think this must be an error.

The ‘initial setting up’ is being undertaken by KCL’s senior management team (which does not seem to contain Alison Wolf, previously named as the project lead).

Several potential sites in and around Waterloo are under consideration by KCL and DfE.

(The location and securing of suitable sites has been a particular problem for new free schools in London, though the final report of the Mayor’s Education Inquiry proposed action to address this.)

All students attending the School will take the same three A levels – Maths, Further Maths and Physics. They will also be expected to take STEP papers and ‘may take another AS level’ (The range of available options is not specified, but a subsequent FAQ section suggests the choice will probably be confined to the Extended Project.)

Otherwise students:

‘will continue with a broad general curriculum, including other sciences, social science, humanities and languages, and have opportunities for sport and the visual and performing arts. Some of these subjects will be delivered through existing King’s facilities.

Through this broader curriculum and learning to see the world through different disciplinary perspectives, the school will foster intellectual curiosity, clear and independent thought, creativity and a sense of social responsibility.’

Exactly how these additional elements will be fitted into the timetable is not explained.

The school roll will be 120 students – 60 per year. In the first year of operation there will be only one intake, so full complement will not be reached until AY2015/16.

The KS4 outreach programme began in September 2012, so has a full two years of operation before the School opens, enabling it to pick up promising candidates at the start of Year 10.

It is:

‘designed to have a positive effect on the people involved, even if they do not wish to apply to KCLMS or are unsuccessful in the selection process.’ [my emphasis]

The FAQ makes clear that graduates of the school will not necessarily be expected to continue their undergraduate studies at King’s (though the project is clearly attractive precisely because it should help to provide them with a richer pool of applicants).

There is no suggestion that graduates of the School will have preferred status in admission to the University (though that might have been an option, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds).

It is also clear that the School will not be suitable for intending medical students:

‘In the main, we expect students to go on to study Maths, Physics, Engineering, Statistics or Computer Science.’

Potential students are invited to apply online from 30 September 2013.  They must have at least 5 GCSE grades A*-C including A*/A in both maths and physics or maths and dual award science. Oddly, GCSE English is not a requirement but ‘will normally be one of those grades’.

These are not particularly demanding requirements, potentially hard to reconcile with the reference to ‘exceptional ability’ above and the comparison with Kolmogorov. Further comment on the pitch of these selection criteria is provided below.

Other admissions criteria are not finalised but will probably include a school reference, ‘our judgement about how much difference attending the school will make to your future based on a number of factors, including the results from an interview’ and the results of a maths aptitude test that will assess problem-solving and mathematical thinking.

Every student will have a maths mentor, either an undergraduate or ‘a junior member of the maths department’. It is not clear whether this is one-to-one provision.

A headteacher will be appointed in April 2013, to take up post in September 2013 and there will be open evenings for prospective students and their families in October and November.

A ‘latest news’ section contains links to various pieces of media coverage about the School. Some are behind paywalls but those that are accessible repeat the information set out in the press release and summarised above.


Headteacher Job Pack

Further details are however available in the job pack for the Headteacher vacancy.

This explains that KCLMS:

‘will be run by a Trust, which the College expects to establish in late March 2013; and by a Board of Governors. This appointment is being managed by King’s College London pending the formal establishment of the trust and the signing of the Funding Agreement between the King’s College London Mathematics School Trust and the Department for Education. The person appointed to this position will be employed by the trust.’

It says that ‘students will be recruited from a wide variety of backgrounds’ adding that:

‘The school will also be committed to recruiting a significant proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and to an outreach programme… to further this objective.’

But this ‘significant proportion’ is not quantified. Unless it is truly significant – perhaps  a third of available places – the School could very easily become monopolised by the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’ or even by students transferring from the independent sector.

The curriculum will not be accelerative:

‘The aim will not be to cover A-level mathematics rapidly and then start on first year university material, but to teach mathematics which includes the A-level material in a way which develops mathematical thinking and an understanding of the logical connections within the subject….

Thus the material covered will be close to that in A-level maths, but the style of study will be different to that in most schools. Particular features will be:

  • Much greater mathematical rigour, and a general supposition that statements must be proved and methods justified;
  • An intellectual approach, putting work in mathematical and historical contexts;
  • Applications informed by current use of mathematics;
  • Integration of methods and ideas used in computer science.
  • Examinations being seen as hurdles to be taken in the students’ stride, not high jumps to intimidate and confound.’

More on this below.

The provisional timetable is based on a 40-hour working week, including independent study.

This will not be an autonomous institution – the University will be very much ‘hands on’:

‘The Mathematics department of King’s College London will be closely involved in curriculum development for the school, both before and after opening, ensuring strong intellectual foundations and insight into developing applications of mathematics’

Academics will also have ‘regular timetabled contact’, potentially via masterclasses.

There will be strong emphasis on collaboration ‘with other schools and teachers who are interested in developing new pedagogies.’ In addition to continuing the existing outreach programme, it is intended that there will be further engagement for students and teachers alike.

There is reference to a network of schools that ‘could provide a valuable means of sharing expertise and good practice, supporting the professional development of teachers at KCLMS and elsewhere.’


‘In the longer term, the school intends to seek independent funding for a larger CPD programme associated with the school’s curriculum and pedagogy, and to offer it to a wide range of  schools and students, using school premises out of hours. This will contribute directly to schools’ teaching quality (and results), and is an important direct benefit that can be offered in return for schools’ collaboration in identifying potential students.’


From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix


Exeter University’s Specialist Maths Free School

There is much less information so far in the public domain about the parallel institution at Exeter.

We know from the University’s press release of 21 January that the project is a partnership between the University and Exeter College, a tertiary institution providing a range of post-16 and higher education courses.

The new institution will be based in Exeter and is also scheduled to open in September 2014.

The number on roll will again be 120 – 60 in each year group, but 20% of places (so approximately 24) will be boarding places, with students staying at the University from Monday to Thursday in term-time. This will enable students from across the region to attend and implies a compacted four-day timetable, perhaps complemented by independent study on Friday’s journey home and over the weekend.

The new School is described as ‘a regional centre of excellence’ supported by the mathematical strength of the University and the College’s ‘curricular and pastoral support’. These partners have also received a development grant to underwrite their project (see comment above about that provision apparently being removed for subsequent proposals).

Few further details are provided, other than that:

  • Students here will also be encouraged to take STEP papers.
  • The University will provide a proportion of the teaching: ‘at least 13 hours of maths, physics and computer science teaching a week’ and ‘students will be exposed to mathematical problem-solving’.
  • The University will also offer:

.‘An enrichment and critical thinking programme. The emphasis will be on applied maths, with students given the opportunity to work with academics to apply mathematical concepts to scientific research on subjects like advanced engineering.

  • Students will also benefit from ‘one-to-one “maths mentoring”’.
  • The Met Office ‘hopes to involve the Free School students in its work’. (The Met Office College is based in Exeter.) This sounds highly provisional.
  • There is also agreement ‘in principle’ from DfE to pay an outreach grant which will ‘support the teaching of maths in schools in the region, running maths workshops and to identify potential applicants’. The University’s existing outreach effort seems fairly limited

DfE’s press release contains identical information and little more is revealed in the wider press coverage.

These plans are obviously still at a very early stage – although there must have been significantly more detail in the papers submitted for DfE approval – and there has been no update since the announcement.

From the information so far published, the Exeter project seems very close conceptually to the one at King’s, indeed almost a clone. It would have been good to have seen evidence of a fundamentally different approach.

We do not know whether the University’s School of Education will be directly involved (though, interestingly – and perhaps tellingly – its news section makes no reference to the free school, preferring to highlight instead an entirely different initiative).


The Level and Source of Interest from Universities

Sixteen months on from the announcement, initial confirmation of just two projects – both of them still subject to approval of their funding agreements – is arguably indicative of limited interest from potential host universities, despite the very generous capital and recurrent funding available.

There may be some ideological opposition to free schools in some universities, but that is unlikely to be the principal cause of their apparent hesitancy to come forward.

Part of the problem is that the Government is fishing in a small pool. References to ‘leading university maths departments’ and ‘world class institutions’ is rather transparent code for the Russell Group, an organisation comprising 24 universities, just 20 of them in England.

Ministers have been criticised for focusing their policies exclusively on this subset of universities, on the assumption that membership defines higher education quality, when in practice there are weaknesses in some Russell Group provision and exceptionally strong provision in most if not all universities outside the Group.

Even in maths, some universities outside the Russell Group are placed highly in national rankings.

In this example the top 20 includes the Universities of Bath (7), Lancaster (12), Southampton (16), Surrey (18), Loughborough (19) and Kent (20). None are members of the Russell Group.

In comparison, King’s and Exeter are ranked 22 and 25 respectively.

Moreover, each has regional competitors placed higher up the rankings than they are. In London there is Imperial (6), LSE (8) and UCL (11). In the South-West there is: Bath (7), Bristol (9) and, arguably Southampton (16).

These are not idiosyncratic results. If we apply an alternative ranking, Exeter is placed 17th and King’s 18th. In the South-West, Bath is 7th and Bristol 11th. In London, Imperial is 3rd, LSE 14thand UCL 15th. (Non-Russell Group institutions outranking Exeter and Kings include Bath, Lancaster, UEA, Loughborough and Surrey.)

Both Kings and Exeter are therefore likely to be attracted to this initiative because they anticipate that it will help them in future to secure a relatively larger share of the best students, so enabling them to compete more effectively with their better-placed competitors.

On this evidence, the scheme is most likely to attract other Russell Group institutions with a similar mid-table profile in other regions – maybe the likes of Liverpool (35 and 41), Birmingham (32 and 26), York (30 and 21), Sheffield (29 and 26) and Manchester (26 and 30).

It might help the Government to spell out explicitly that they are not interested solely in Russell Group institutions, recognising that excellent maths provision exists elsewhere. It might also help to offer some explicit guidance on the thresholds that they expect such maths departments to exceed.

The trouble is that there is a bewildering array of alternative models already being pursued by universities:

  • Many are involved in the development of a subset of University Technical Schools (UTCs) – the current list of projects is also available from this link.
  • A few are interested in another project which has so far attracted relatively limited interest: University Training Schools. This model was originally set out in the 2010 Schools White Paper but, as far as I can establish, only the University of Birmingham and the Institute of Education have so far taken this path. The latter project seems rather under wraps and this is the only explicit link I can find on the IoE’s own website, though it is also mentioned in this TES article. (I found a reference in Paragraph 43 of Oxford University’s Access Agreement for 2012/13 to ‘development of a University Training School as a laboratory school, once the procedures for developing these schools are clarified’ but this seems to have fallen out of the latest 2013/14 Agreement.)

It is quite likely that many potentially interested and eligible universities have already backed a different model and are reluctant to expand their portfolio at this stage.

Some – such as Warwick University – will be relying on other initiatives to secure a stronger share of the best undergraduates. In Warwick’s case that role is fulfilled by IGGY.

This comparatively limited interest is despite the fact that a capital budget of approximately £6m is available for each project, plus annual recurrent costs of around £4,000 per student in Exeter and £5,115 in Lambeth, London (according to the DfE’s ‘ready reckoners’) not to mention the unspecified sums available in development and outreach grants, or any other supplements made available.

It is not clear how much of a university’s own money would be needed for such a project but one might expect that any cost would be attributable mainly to the staff resource needed to develop and launch the project and then provide steady-state input, including the specified contribution to the teaching and support of students.

That would be a tidy sum no doubt, but surely covered substantively by a development grant and the recurrent funding available. (Set in this context, the apparent decision to withdraw a development grant from new applicants seems rather puzzling.)


From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix

From Kew Gardens courtesy of Gifted Phoenix


Assessment of the model



16-19 maths free schools are based on the twin pillars of selection and specialisation.

The arguments for and against selection are well-rehearsed and I will not repeat them here. It seems that selection at age 16 is somewhat less contentious than selection at age 11 (with selection at 14 a largely untested assumption).

Nevertheless, most of the arguments against (and for) selection remain in play regardless of the age at when that selection takes place. We can see this writ large in current debate about fair access to university and its impact on social mobility.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that selective universities would harbour an ideological opposition to selection at age 16.

The pitch of the selection is critical. The description of the Government’s policy intention would suggest a cadre of highly selective institutions, though of course that depends ultimately on the number of candidates who apply and, of those, what proportion can satisfy the admissions criteria.

Some aspects of those requirements are currently unclear, even for the school at the most advanced stage of development. For example, we know nothing of the planned aptitude test at KCLMS.

It is clear that their GCSE requirements are not as exacting as they might be, in that they do not require A* grades in maths and physics or a compulsory pass in English.

The latest 2011/12 statistics suggest that 20.2% of students achieve an A*/A grade in mathematics while almost 47% manage this in physics. Given the similarity between the subjects, it is fairly likely that the proportion achieving this level in both subjects (or in maths and combined science) is also likely to be fairly close to 20%.

This places the pitch of selection on a par with the traditional assumption for grammar schools (though the reality is now far different and highly differentiated).

There is an obvious trade-off here between excellence and equity. If selection is pitched too highly, it will become impossible to recruit sufficient students from disadvantaged backgrounds, because high attainment is found disproportionately amongst those from comparatively advantaged backgrounds. As I have suggested, this could mean that the provision is unfairly monopolised by the middle classes.

On the other hand, if it is pitched too low, students will be admitted who are not the very highest achievers and so are relatively less likely to achieve the A level grades they need to secure places in the most competitive university maths departments.

Gifted educators know that this issue boils down to the critical distinction between attainment and ability.

These schools need to find the right blend of admissions arrangements such that they can recruit:

  • A critical mass of the highest achievers from a variety of backgrounds, ideally giving preference to those whose current institutions do not offer high quality post-16 maths education, rather than the products of selective and independent schools; and
  • An even more critical mass of students with demonstrated mathematical ability which may not yet have been translated into high achievement, especially those whose underachievement is attributable – at least in part – to a relatively disadvantaged background.

KCLMS’s aptitude test will be critical in achieving this outcome, as will their decision whether or not to give priority admission to recipients of the Pupil Premium. It will be important that they and Exeter subject their draft admission criteria to proper ‘stress testing’ before they are adopted.


Specialisation and Acceleration

The debate over specialisation is less polarised. Historically there has been argument that the typical A level student experiences a rather narrow curriculum compared with his peers in many other countries, including several of those perceived to have the most successful education systems.

The trade-off between breadth and depth is discussed in Ofqual’s Report on International Comparability.

But the Consultation on A level reform did not enter this territory other than in relation to AS levels, arguing that the majority view is that A levels are broadly ‘fit for purpose’.

The specific issue in this context is that students attending these schools are likely to have an even narrower curricular experience than their peers in other English schools and colleges.

If the KCLMS precedent is followed, they will have an extremely constrained choice of A levels – indeed no choice at all – compared with what would be available in a typical sixth form, even in a small rural school.

There are references to curricular provision beyond maths and physics in the KCLMS plans, but it is not clear how they will be implemented in practice, beyond the option of an AS Extended Project.

It has to be open to question whether a small sixth form containing 60 students in each year group, all taking the same three A level choices, is the optimal solution for many students who, as a consequence, will not be exposed to ideas and perspectives from peers experiencing an entirely different subject context.

There will be limited opportunity to bring out the inter-disciplinary connections that are so often of interest to gifted learners, to undertake cross-curricular collaborative learning with peers who can bring to bear strength in other subject areas.

This seems an artificial constriction which may make the KCLMS option unattractive to some students, especially those who are ‘all-rounders’ with strength in maths and other subject areas. It is not necessarily a given that these students will be weaker mathematicians than peers with just that one string to their bows.

Moreover, the KCLMS proposal is guilty of a different kind of narrowness in that it is avowedly anti-acceleration, so ignoring opportunities to utilise the close relationship with a university to enable school-age students to pursue undergraduate study.

This reflects a strong strand of thinking in parts of the UK maths education community which believes that acceleration is most definitely not in the best interests of students.

It is not the position I would take, which is that acceleration (faster pace) done properly can be combined effectively with enrichment (greater breadth) and extension (more depth; more problem-solving), and that the proportions of each should reflect different students’ needs. (There is not space here to unpack what ‘done properly’ means, but most gifted educators will be familiar with the arguments.)

The KCLMS approach will probably be unattractive to some of the very highest achieving young mathematicians, who will see this as placing an artificial cap on their progress. It will also mean that KCLMS is very different indeed to some comparable institutions in other parts of the world where accelerated study is actively encouraged.

(I note in passing that it is as yet unclear whether these schools will admit already-accelerated students aged under 16.)


A Network of New Schools or a Broader National Network?

One might reasonably question whether setting up a tranche of a dozen or so schools at a capital cost of £72m and an annual recurrent cost in steady state of approximately £6.5m (assuming 12 schools with 120 students each and an average annual per student recurrent cost of £4,500) is the most efficient strategy for increasing the supply of high achievers in maths.

Especially since the benefit under this model is largely confined to an annual cohort of around 720 students (12 x 60) assuming there are 12 schools all the same size as the first two.

In order to roll out the same model, further funding tranches of this magnitude would be required for every additional 12 schools added to the network – there would be few if any economies of scale.

It is likely that this model was adopted because: the Government wanted to increase the stock of free schools; the available capital funding could not be diverted to cover running costs; and it was felt that the infrastructural work involved in building the new schools would itself have a positive impact on economic growth.

Also, perhaps, because, it is ideologically committed to a ‘bottom-up’ distributed model rather than a ‘top down’ prescriptive model – and is reluctant to entertain the possibility that there might be an optimal ‘middle way’.

It would be quite wrong to criticise the current programme at this early stage because we have no evidence of its impact, other than on the grounds that the number of beneficiaries will be comparatively small.

It may eventually be demonstrated that the positive impact on students is so marked that the programme is good value for money despite the heavy outlay.

But, if we were given a development budget equivalent to the cost of one school (£6m), an identical annual running cost budget of £6.5m per year and a blank sheet of paper, what design principles might we establish to underpin a more efficient and fully scalable approach?

One might begin with the core purpose of creating and sustaining a national network designed to support all students in state-maintained schools and colleges with the potential capacity to achieve, say, at least grades AAB in three of the target A level subjects plus a STEP paper grade of 1 (very good) or S (outstanding).

Such support would be available from Year 9 at the latest and ideally from Year 7. From Years 7 to 9 it would be light touch and provided to a relatively broad cohort, in recognition of the difficulty of predicting future performance at such an early stage.

But, from Year 10, it would be concentrated on a smaller group of future high achievers. This would include existing high attainers, but would also give priority and additional intensive support to learners whose potential is significant, but is unfulfilled as a consequence of socio-economic disadvantage.

This national network would need to draw on the co-ordinated strength of the many national bodies already active in this field, including the likes of Nrich, the NCETM and MEI’s Further Mathematics Support. They would be drawn into a powerful coalition, prepared to sink their differences in pursuit of this common cause. (Those receiving Government funding might have it made conditional on their constructive involvement.)

The network would aim to reach every state-maintained secondary school and post-16 institution, and to draw directly on the expertise within the widest range of institutions which have it to offer, including specialist academies, outstanding schools with an old-style maths specialism, national teaching schools, independent schools and post-16 institutions.

It would be developed on ‘flexible framework’ principles, combining a set of challenging common core expectations and light touch accountability with sufficient autonomy for participating institutions to innovate and to meet the very different needs of their students.

The services provided and co-ordinated through the network might include:

  • Outreach by the strongest university, college and school maths departments in each region, regardless of the categorisation of those institutions.
  • Extensive online learning provision, for use in class and via independent learning, again drawing on the combined expertise of all national, regional and local partners. This would be free at the point of delivery and would be designed on social network principles, encouraging students to learn with and from each other.
  • Support from an undergraduate of postgraduate mentor, provided face-to-face in the case of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Additional support to raise the aspirations of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and to equip them with the social and cultural capital necessary to compete for places at the most competitive universities.
  • High quality professional development and support for host schools and colleges and lead mathematics and physics teachers within them

In addition, a small core of schools and colleges – some academies and free schools, some not, some independent – might be identified as post-16 centres of excellence and funded to admit the most promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the short term there would be ‘quick win’ interventions in the form of direct support for disadvantaged learners across Years 12 and 13.

The Government would ensure that all appropriate policy connections were made – whether with wider support for maths education, academically able pupils, fair access to higher education and so on – to ensure that all are mutually supportive and that benefit from the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

And of course the whole caboodle would be rigorously evaluated, both formatively and summatively. Success would be judged against achievement of a few rigorous performance measures.


The Bigger Picture

As we approach the 2013 Budget, there are many signs that we have emerging consensus on the importance of investment in human capital. Witness, for example:

  • The Heseltine Report on growth ‘No Stone Unturned’, the bulk of which has been accepted by the Government

No doubt there are many more.

But, with the honourable exception of the CBI (which is not as explicit as it might be on the point) none of these recognise the substantial benefits that would accrue from more targeted investment in our school-age high achievers.

To give the Government credit, the 16-19 maths free schools programme shows that they are alive to these arguments, even if only in a relatively narrow STEM-related context.

But it is worth pausing to consider whether a network eventually built around a small set of selective post-16 institutions is the optimal approach.

Assuming that new free schools are a ‘non-negotiable’ it might be preferable to start with the network and drop the schools into it, rather than starting with the schools and waiting for them to build the network from the bottom up.

There are lessons to be learned from the careful study of similar provision in jurisdictions like Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel, all of them featured in earlier posts on this blog. In these jurisdictions, the ‘elite’ schools are typically nodal points in a much wider mesh of provision rather than ‘stand-alone’ providers with outreach capacity.

An evaluation of the maths 16-19 free schools pathfinder project might usefully incorporate that comparative dimension, while also reflecting the current predilection for randomised control trials.

Given the recent designation of the Education Endowment Foundation as a more generic ‘what works centre’ for education, it may now be for that body to commission the appropriate study.



March 2013

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