16-19 Maths Free Schools Revisited

This post marks the opening of two university-sponsored 16-19 maths free schools with a fresh look at the wider programme that spawned them.

It scrutinises developments since the publication of ‘A Progress Report on 16-19 Maths Free Schools’ (March 2013), building on the foundations within ‘The Introduction in England of Selective 16-19 Maths Free Schools’ (November 2011).

courtesy of Jim2K

courtesy of Jim2K

The broad structure of the post is as follows:

  • A description of the genesis of the programme and a summary of developments up to March 2013.
  • The subsequent history of the programme, from March 2013 to the present day. This reviews efforts to recruit more university sponsors into the programme – and to resist the publication of information showing which had submitted expressions of interest and, subsequently, formal proposals.
  • An assessment of the prospects for the programme at this point and for wider efforts to expand and remodel England’s national maths talent pipeline.

Since many readers will be interested in some of these sections but not others, I have included direct links to the main text from the first word of each bullet point above.


Genesis and early developments

Capital investment to support the programme was confirmed in the 2011 Autumn Statement, which referred to:

‘…an extra £600 million to fund 100 additional Free Schools by the end of this parliament. This will include new specialist maths Free Schools for 16-18 year olds, supported by strong university maths departments and academics’.

This followed an orchestrated sequence of stories fed to the media immediately prior to the Statement.

One source reported a plan to establish 12 such schools in major cities by the end of the Parliament (Spring 2015) ‘before the model is expanded nationwide’. These would:

‘…act as a model for similar institutions specialising in other subjects’.

Another confirmed the number of institutions, adding that there would be ‘…a special application process outside the regular free school application process…’

A third added that the project was viewed as an important part of the Government’s strategy for economic growth, suggesting that some of the schools:

‘…would offer pure maths, while others would combine the subject with physics, chemistry or computer sciences.’

Assuming provision for 12 schools at £6m a time, the Treasury had provided a capital budget of £72m available until 2015. It remains unclear whether this sum was ringfenced for university-sponsored maths schools or could be diverted into the wider free schools programme.

We now know that former political adviser Dominic Cummings was a prime instigator of the maths free schools project – and presumably behind the press briefings outlined above.

The most recent edition of his essay ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’ (2013) says:

‘We know that at the top end of the ability range, specialist schools, such as the famous Russian ‘Kolmogorov schools’…show that it is possible to educate the most able and interested pupils to an extremely high level…We should give this ~2% a specialist education as per Eton or Kolmogorov, including deep problem-solving skills in maths and physics.

The first English specialist maths schools, run by King’s College and Exeter University, have been approved by the Department for Education and will open in 2014. All of the pupils will be prepared for the maths ‘STEP’ paper that Cambridge requires for entry (or Oxford’s equivalent) – an exam that sets challenging problems involving unfamiliar ways of considering familiar  material, rather than the formulaic multi-step questions of A Level.’

Back in February 2012, TES reported 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.’

‘TES understands that officials within the Department for Education are now keen to establish the schools on the model of Kolmogorov, a boarding school that selects the brightest mathematicians in Russia.’

In fact, the meeting discussed a variety of international models and, on 20 February, Education Minister Nick Gibb answered a PQ thus:

‘Alex Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Education when he expects the first free school specialising in mathematics for 16 to 18 year-olds to open; how many 16 to 18 year-olds he expects to enrol in free schools specialising in mathematics by 2015; with which universities he has discussed these free schools; and what guidance he plans to provide to people who wish to apply to open such a school.

Mr Gibb: We are developing proposals on how specialist maths schools for 16 to 18-year-olds might operate and will announce further details in due course. We are keen to engage with all those who have an interest to explore possible models and innovative ideas.’ (Col. 723W).

However, no proposals were published.

The minutes from King’s College London (KCL) Council meeting of 26 June 2012 reveal that:

‘Following approval by the Principal’s Central Team, the College was pursuing discussions with the Department for Education about sponsoring one of 12 specialist Maths schools for 16-18 year olds to be established with the support of university Mathematics departments. The initiative was intended to address national deficiencies in the subject and to promote a flow of highly talented students into university. In discussion, members noted that while the financial and reputational risks and the costs in management time needed to be carefully analysed, the project supported the College’s commitment to widening participation and had the potential to enhance the strengths of the Mathematics Department and the Department of Education and Professional Services, as well as addressing a national problem. The Council approved the College’s continued engagement with this initiative.’

By December 2012 KCL had announced that it would establish a maths free school, with both its maths and education departments involved. The school was scheduled to open in September 2014.

KCL confirmed that it had received from DfE a development grant plus a parallel outreach grant to support a programme for mathematically talented 14-16 year-olds, some of whom might subsequently attend the school.

The minutes of the University of Exeter Council meeting of 13 December 2012 record that:

‘As Council were aware, Exeter was going to be a partner in an exciting regional development to set up one of the first two Maths specialist schools with Exeter College. The other school would be led by King’s College London. This would cater for talented Maths students as a Free School with intake from four counties (Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset) with a planned total number of students of 120 by September 2017. The bid was submitted to the Department of Education on 11th December and the outcome would be announced in early January, with the school opening in 2014. It would be taught by Exeter College teachers with contributions from staff in pure and applied Maths in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences (CEMPS), input from the Graduate School of Education and from CEMPS students as mentors and ambassadors. It was hoped that at least some of these talented students would choose to progress to the University. Council would be kept informed of the progress of the bid.’

In January 2013 a DfE press release announced approval of this second school. It would indeed have capacity for 120 students, with Monday-Thursday boarding provision for 20% (24 students), enabling it to recruit from across the four counties named above, so acting as a ‘regional centre of excellence’.

This project had also received a development grant – which we know was up to £300K – had agreement in principle to an outreach grant and also expected to open in September 2014.

There is also reference to plans for Met Office involvement with the School.

The press release repeats that:

‘The ultimate aim is to create a network of schools that operate across England which identify and nurture mathematical and scientific talent.’

A page added to DfE’s website in March 2013 invites further expressions of interest to open maths free schools in September 2014 and beyond.

Parallel Q and A, which has now been removed, made clear that development grants would not be available to new applicants:

‘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.’

This has subsequently been reversed (see below).


Progress since March 2013


The Hard Sell

While KCL and Exeter developed their plans, strenuous efforts were made to encourage other universities to participate in the programme.

A TES piece from May 2013, profiling the newly-appointed head of the KCL school, includes a quote from Alison Wolf – the prominent chair of the project group at KCL:

‘’The Brit School is a really good comparison,” she says. “When we were working on the new school and thinking about what to do, we’d look at their website.

“Maths is very glamorous if you’re a young mathematician, which is why they’ll do well when they are around other people who adore maths.”

The story adds that 16 schools are now planned rather than the original 12, but no source is attributed to this statement.

It seems that the wider strategy at this stage was to convince other potential university sponsors that maths schools were an opportunity not to be missed, to imply that there was already substantial interest from prominent competitors, so encouraging them to climb on board for fear of missing the boat.


Playing the Fair Access Card

But there was soon a change of tack. In June 2013, the Guardian reported that education minister Liz Truss had written to the heads of university maths departments to encourage bids.

‘As an incentive to open the new schools, universities will be allowed to fund them using budgets otherwise reserved for improving access to higher education for under-represented and disadvantaged groups….

Les Ebdon, director of Offa, said: “I’d be happy to see more university-led maths free schools because of the role they can play in helping able students from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education.

“It is for individual universities and colleges to decide whether or not this is something they want to do, but Offa is supportive of anything that is targeted at under-represented groups and helps them to fulfil their potential.”

…According to Truss’s letter, Ebdon confirmed it would be “perfectly legitimate to allocate funding ringfenced for improving access for under-represented groups towards the establishment of such schools,” counting the spending as “widening access”.’

My initial post had pointed to the potential significance of this coupling of excellence and equity as early as November 2011:

‘It is not clear whether a fundamental purpose of these institutions is to support the Government’s drive towards greater social mobility through fair access to competitive universities. However, one might reasonably suggest it would be an oversight not to deploy them…encouraging institutions to give priority during the admissions process would be the likely solution.’

But Ministers’ rather belated conversion to the merits of alignment with social mobility and fair access might have been interpreted as opportunism rather than a sincere effort to join together two parallel strands of Government policy, especially since it had not been identified as a central feature in either KCL’s or Exeter’s plans.

I can find nothing on Offa’s website confirming the statement that funding ringfenced for fair access might be allocated by universities to the development of maths free schools. There is no contemporary press notice and nothing in subsequent guidance on the content of access agreements. This begs the question whether Ebdon’s comments constitute official Offa advice.

However the text of the letter is preserved online and the identical text appears within it:

‘I want to encourage other universities to consider whether they could run similar schools: selective, innovative and stretching our brightest and best young mathematicians. It is a logical extension of the role that dozens of universities have already played in sponsoring academies.

I also wanted to highlight to your colleagues that Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access, is enthusiastic about the role university led Maths Free Schools can have in encouraging more young people to go on to study maths at university, and to reap the benefits that brings. Professor Ebdon has also confirmed to me that he considers the sponsorship and development of Maths Free Schools as contributing to higher education ‘widening access’ activity, and that it would be perfectly legitimate to allocate funding ring-fenced for improving access for underrepresented groups towards the establishment of such schools.

Unlike our usual practice for Free Schools, there is no competitive application process for Maths Free Schools. Instead we ask interested universities to submit a short proposal setting out the key features of the school. These proposals need not be long: King’s and Exeter both submitted initial proposals that were around 12 pages…

[There follows a list of bullet points describing the content of these initial proposals, none of which address the admission of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.]

….Both King’s College and the University of Exeter had a number of detailed discussions with colleagues in the Department to develop and refine their proposals and we are always happy to work with universities to help them focus their plans before submitting a formal proposal. If we approve a proposal, we do then offer financial support to cover the costs of project management, and of recruiting some staff before the school opens, in the same we would for any free school.’

(By way of an aside, note that the final emboldened sentence in the quotation above corrects the statement in the Q and A mentioned above. It seems that maths free schools are now treated comparably with all other free school projects in this respect, even though the application process remains different.

The latest version of free school pre-opening guidance gives the sum available in Project Development Grant for 16-19 free schools as £0.25m.)

Going back to Offa, there are no conditions imposed by Ebdon in respect of admissions to the schools, which seems a little over-relaxed, given that they might well attract a predominantly advantaged intake. I wonder whether Ebdon was content to offer personal support but refused to provide official Offa endorsement.



In July 2013 the BBC reported a speech by Truss at the 2013 ACME Conference. Oddly, the speech is not preserved on the gov.uk site. According to the BBC:

“We want this movement to spread still further,” she told delegates.

“So we’re allowing universities to apply to sponsor new maths free schools through a fast-track, simplified procedure, without having to go through the normal competitive application process.

“These schools will not only improve standards in maths teaching, but will equip talented young people from low-income backgrounds with the skills they need to study maths at university.”

Mrs Truss said the Office for Fair Access had confirmed that, when universities contributed to the sponsorship or development of maths free schools, this would be considered as one of their activities to widen access to under-represented groups – and therefore as part of their access agreement.

“I hope that this is the start of a new network of world-class free schools, under the aegis of top universities, helping to prepare talented 16- to 19-year-olds from any and every background for the demands of university study.”

Note that Ebdon’s endorsement is now Offa’s.

Cummings’ essay remarks in a footnote:

‘Other maths departments were enthusiastic about the idea but Vice Chancellor offices were hostile because of the political fear of accusations of ‘elitism’. Hopefully the recent support of Les Ebdon for the idea will change this.’

A year on, we have no evidence that it has done so.


The Soft Sell

By the beginning of the following academic year, a more subtle strategy was adopted. The two schools-in-development launched a maths competition for teams from London and the South-West with prizes awarded by education ministers.



A November 2013 DfE press release marks the ceremony. Michael Gove is quoted:

‘We need specialist maths free schools like King’s College London (KCL) Maths School and Exeter Mathematics School. They will develop the talents of exceptional young mathematicians and ensure they can compete in the global race.’

The release continues:

‘The KCL and Exeter schools are the first to take advantage of a development grant made available by the Department for Education for the creation of university-led specialist maths free schools.’

The notes include a link to the 1 March webpage mentioned above for ‘Universities interested in developing their own maths free school’.


Publicity avoided

We now know that a Freedom of Information request had been submitted to DfE in October 2013, asking how many expressions of interest and firm proposals had been received, which institutions had submitted these and which proposals had been approved and rejected.

The source is an ICO Decision Notice published on 12 June 2014.

The request was initially rejected and this decision was upheld in January 2014 following an internal review. A complaint was immediately lodged with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The Decision Notice records the Commissioner’s decision that public interest outweighs the case for withholding the information. Accordingly he directs that it should be released to the complainant within 35 calendar days of the date of the Notice (ie by 17 July 2014).

The Notice contains some interesting snippets:

  • ‘It has been the DfE’s experience that interested Heads of Maths have contacted it for further information before seeking to discuss the idea with their Vice Chancellor.’ There is no process for accepting formal expressions of interest.
  • There are…no fixed criteria against which all proposals are assessed.’
  • ‘The DfE confirmed that the application is and has always been the first formal stage of the maths free schools process and it has already stated publicly that it has received three applications from King’s College London, Exeter University and the University of Central Lancashire.’
  • ‘It [ie DfE] confirmed that funding arrangements were only confirmed for the development of maths free schools in February 2014 and many policy decisions on this issue have been shaped by the specifics of the two schools that are due to open soon. It expects the policy to develop even further as more maths free schools are approved.’
  • ‘The DfE explained that universities are extremely risk adverse when it comes to protecting their reputation and so do not want to be publically named until they have submitted an application. As such, if they are named at an earlier point it may make them pull out altogether and may make universities unwilling to approach the DfE with ideas.’
  • ‘Similarly, the DfE argued that if it were to release the reasons why one of the applications was rejected it would be likely to deter future interest as the university would not want the public criticism of its ideas. Given that the policy is driven by university interest, if all potential groups are deterred the policy will fail and students will not be able to enjoy the potential benefits.’

The Commissioner gave these arguments short shrift, pointing out the benefits of transparency for policy development and the encouragement of more successful applications.

The text does not say so explicitly, but one can imagine the Commissioner thinking  ‘given the low level of interest stimulated to date, you might at least try a more open strategy –what have you got to lose?’

It does seem unlikely that university heads of maths departments would submit speculative expressions of interest without internal clearance. Their approaches were presumably of the informal ‘sounding out’ variety. They would understand the shaky internal politics of failing to consult the corporate centre – not to mention their education faculties

The lack of specific and transparent assessment criteria does appear to have backfired. What guarantees might universities otherwise receive that their proposals would be judged objectively?

One can imagine the questions:

  • Is the scheme open to all universities, Russell Group or otherwise?
  • If not, what criteria must the host university satisfy?
  • What counts as a ‘strong mathematics department?’
  • Can projects be led by university departments of education, or only undertaken jointly (as at KCL)?

Without explicit and consistent answers one can readily understand why many universities would be disinclined to pursue the idea.

The reference to belated confirmation of funding arrangements – as recently as February 2014 – is intriguing. It cannot apply to capital funding, unless that was vired in extremis. Perhaps it relates to the parallel recurrent funding pot or simply the availability of project development grants.

The latter seems unlikely given the statement in the letter to HoDOMS, dated some eight months previously.

One suspects that there might have been internal difficulties in ringfencing sufficient recurrent funding to honour proposals as and when they were received. Some prospective bidders might have baulked on being told that their budget could not be confirmed until a later date.

But the eventual resolution of this issue a little over a year before the end of the spending round would be unlikely to have a significant impact on the number of successful bids, especially if unspent capital funding has to be surrendered by Spring 2015.


Recent developments

In July 2014 the TES revealed that it had been the source of this FoI request.



But the story reveals little new, other than that:

‘Five further expressions of interest have been made but not yet yielded an application’

The sources are not revealed.

David Reynolds opines that:

‘Having a small number of schools doesn’t matter if we can get the knowledge from them around the system. So we need them to be excellent schools and we need to somehow get that knowledge around.’

A DfE statement concludes:

‘We continue to welcome applications and expressions of interest from universities and the first maths free schools, set up by two leading universities, will be opening in September.’

So we know there have been eight expressions of interest, three of them converted into firm proposals.

The receipt of the third proposal, from the University of Central Lancashire (UClan), is said to have been made public, but I can find no record of it in the lists of Wave 1 to 7 free school applications so far published.

There is a reference in UCLAN’s 2013-14 access agreement dated 31 May 2012:

‘The University is currently consulting on the formation of a Maths Free School which would be run alongside its new Engineering Innovation Centre at the Preston Campus.’

Nothing is said about the plans in the access agreements for 2014-15 and 2015-16.

There is one further reference on the New Schools Network site to a:

‘Consultant engaged to carry out a feasibility study re a Maths Free School on behalf of the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan)’.

One assumes that this must be out-of-date, unless UCLan is considering a second bid.

Otherwise, a simple process of elimination tells us that UCLan’s proposal must have been rejected. The reason for this is now presumably known to TES, as are the sources of the five expressions of interest that were not converted into proposals. Why have they not published this information?

Perhaps they are waiting for DfE to place these details on its website but, at the time of writing – almost three months after the Decision Notice issued – it has not been uploaded.

Meanwhile, there are no further maths free school proposals in the most recent Wave 7 information relating to applications received by 9 May 2014.

The deadline for Wave 8 is imminent. That may well be the last on this side of the Election.

A further feature published by the TES in October 2014 throws no fresh light on these matters, though it carries a quote by new Secretary of State Nicky Morgan, interviewed at the KCL School launch:

‘I think that some [universities] are clearly waiting to see how the King’s and Exeter schools go. Clearly there is a huge amount of effort required, but I think King’s will be enormously successful, and I am hoping they will be leading by example.’

That sounds suspiciously like tacit admission that there will be no new proposals before a General Election.

Another opinion, diametrically opposed to David Reynolds’ view, is contributed by the head of the school of education at Nottingham University who is also Deputy Chair of ACME:

‘I’m very supportive of more people doing more maths, but even if you have 12 schools, you are really scratching the surface,” said Andrew Noyes, head of the school of education at Nottingham University and a former maths teacher.

“These kinds of policy experiments are very nice and they’re beneficial for a certain number of young people, but they’re relatively cheap compared with providing high-quality maths education at every stage in every school.”’

So what are the prospects for the success of the KCL and Exeter Schools? The next section reviews the evidence so far in the public domain.


The KCL and Exeter Free Schools


KCL School

The KCL School opened in September 2014 with 68 students, against a planned admissions number of 60. The most recent TES article says that there were 130 applicants and nearly all of those successful were drawn from state schools.

However, another reliable source – a member of the governing body – says that only 85% (ie 58) are from maintained schools, so the independent sector is actually over-represented.

He adds that:

‘Many are from families where neither parent has attended university’

but that is not necessarily an indicator of disadvantage.

We also know that some 43% (29 students) were female, which is a laudable outcome.

The School is located in Lambeth Walk, some distance from KCL’s main campuses. The capital cost of refurbishing the School was seemingly £5m. It occupies two buildings and the main building is shared with a doctor’s surgery.

My March 2013 post summarised KCL’s plans, as revealed by material on the University’s site at that time, supplemented by the content of an information pack for potential heads which is no longer available online.

I have reproduced the main points below, to provide a baseline against which to judge the finished article.

  • The full roll will be 120, with an annual admission number of 60. Potential applicants must have at least 5 GCSE grades A*-C including A*/A in both maths and physics or maths and dual award science.
  • Other admissions criteria 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 test of aptitude for problem-solving and mathematical thinking.
  • The headteacher information pack adds 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.’
  • All students will take Maths, Further Maths and Physics A levels. They will be expected to take STEP papers and may take a further AS level (an FAQ suggests this will be an Extended Project). Every student will have a maths mentor, either an undergraduate or ‘a junior member of the maths department’.
  • They will also ‘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 this provision will be ‘delivered through existing King’s facilities’. The provisional timetable assumes a 40-hour working week, including independent study.
  • The University maths department ‘will be closely involved in curriculum development’ and academics will have ‘regular timetabled contact’, potentially via masterclasses.
  • There will be strong emphasis on collaboration with partner schools. 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’.

At the time of writing, the KCL Maths School website does not have a working link to the admissions policy, although it can be found online.

As expected, 60 students will be admitted in September 2015. Minimum requirements are now

‘A or A* in GCSE Mathematics or in iGCSE Mathematics

Either an A or A* in GCSE Physics or iGCSE Physics, or an AA, A*A or A*A* in GCSE Science and GCSE Additional Science, or an A or A* in all three Physics modules contained within the GCSE Science, Additional Science and Further Additional Science qualifications; and

A*-C grade in 5 other GCSEs or other qualifications that count towards the Key Stage 4 performance tables compiled by the Department of Education, normally including English language.’

So the minimum requirement has been stiffened to at least seven GCSEs, or equivalent, including A*/A grades in maths and physics and at least a C in English language.

The application process does indeed include a reference, an aptitude test and an interview.

The test is based on KS3 national curriculum material up to Level 8, containing ‘routine and less familiar problems’. Some specimen questions are supplied.

The latest TES story says there are two interviews but this is wrong – there is one interview but two interview scores. One of the two scores is ‘to assess to what extent the school is likely to add value in terms of making a difference to [candidates’] future careers’ but there is no explicit reference to priority for disadvantaged students anywhere in the admissions policy.

Indeed, the section headed Equality and Diversity says:

‘All places at King’s College London Mathematics School are offered on the basis of academic ability and aptitude.’

This does not amount to a commitment to recruit ‘a significant proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds’, as stated in the headteacher information pack.

The website confirms that all students take A levels in maths, further maths and physics, together with an AS EPQ. But now they can also take an optional AS level in computing in Year 12 and may convert it to an A level in Year 13. They will also take either the AEA or STEP papers.

The description of additional curricular provision is somewhat vague. Students will have a series of lessons and educational visits. Each fortnight a KCL lecturer will introduce a new theme, to be explored through ‘mini research projects’. Students will also learn a modern language but to what level is unclear.

A mentor will be assigned to support work for the EPQ. There will also be a maths mentor – always an undergraduate, never ‘a junior member of the maths department’ – available for one meeting a week.

Tuesday afternoons seem to be set aside for sport and exercise. Visual and performing arts will be explored through extra-curricular activity, though this is currently aspirational rather than real:

‘…the school hopes to have sufficient interest to form a student choir, orchestra and dramatic society.’

The length of the school day is six hours and 55 minutes, with five hours of lessons (though the FAQ implies that students will not have a full timetable).

The present staff complement is 10, six of whom seem to be teaching staff. The head was formerly Head of Maths at Highgate School.

Outreach continues for students in Years 10 and 11. There is also a CPD programme for those new to teaching further maths. This is funded by a £75,000 grant from the Mayor’s London Schools Excellence Fund and supports 30 teachers from six schools spread across five boroughs.

KCL’s Access Agreement for 2015/16 says:

‘King’s College London Mathematics School aims to increase substantially the number of young people with the right levels of mathematical attainment to study STEM subjects at top-rated universities. It also aims to improve access to high quality mathematical education at sixth form level and is targeting individuals from schools where such provision is not easily available (in particular, 11-16 schools and schools where further mathematics is not offered as part of the curriculum at A-level). The school has implemented an extensive outreach programme for pupils at KS4, aged 14-16, whereby pupils come to King’s College London for two hours per fortnight over a two-year period. Through this programme, the school will provide students with limited access [sic] to high quality sixth form provision the understanding and skills they need to prepare for A-levels in Maths and Further Maths should they decide to study them, and also to support applications to the maths school should they wish to make them.

The school has also just launched a programme of continuing professional development for maths teachers in London schools. The programme will run for two consecutive years, and will enable high-quality teaching of Further Maths for those new to teaching this A-level. One of the key aims of this programme is to improve take up and retention rates in A-level Further Maths, with a view to increasing numbers of well-trained applicants to STEM subjects at university.’


The Exeter School also opened in September 2014, with 34 students, against a planned admission number of 30. Disappointingly only seven are girls. Eleven (32%) are boarders. We do not know the number of applicants.

The School is located in Rougemont House, a Grade 2 listed building close to the University and College. The cost of refurbishment is as yet unknown.

There were relatively fewer details available of Exeter’s plans at the time I wrote my previous post. The January 2013 revealed that:

  • As we have seen, the roll would be 120 students, 60 per year group, with boarding places available for 20% of them.
  • All students would take maths A level and the STEP paper and all would have 1:1 maths mentoring.
  • University academics would provide an ‘enrichment and critical thinking programme’.
  • The Met Office would be involved.

The 2014 admissions policy dates from September 2013.  It indicates that the School will admit 30 students in September 2014, 50 in September 2015 and 60 in September 2016. It will not reach full capacity until September 2017.

Minimum entry requirements are:

  • A* in GCSE Mathematics
  • A or A* in double sciences or single science Physics (in 2015 computer science is also acceptable as an alternative)
  • At least 6 GCSEs at C grade or above, normally to include English Language at a grade B.

So Exeter is more demanding than KCL in respect of the grades required for both GCSE maths and English language, but the minimum number of GCSEs required is one fewer.

The policy says that the School will aim for allocated places to reflect the incidence of potential students across Devon (47%) and in the other three counties served by the school (Cornwall 23%, Somerset 23%, Dorset 6%) but they will not be selected on this basis. There is nothing in the admissions criteria to secure this outcome, so the purpose of this paragraph is unclear.

The selection process involves a written application, a reference an interview and ‘a mathematics-based entry exam’, subsequently called an aptitude test. This is described in identical terms to the test used by KCL – indeed the specimen questions are identical.

The oversubscription criteria involve giving priority to ‘interview answers and the candidates’ potential to thrive and succeed on the course’.

Under ‘Equality and Diversity’ the document says:

‘EMS is committed to widening participation and broadening access to high quality mathematics education. As such, we will target our recruitment in areas which have high levels of deprivation and in schools for which provision is currently limited, such as those without 6th forms.

EMS will encourage applications from female students through targeted marketing and recruitment. However, there will be no positive discrimination for girls in the admissions criteria.’

The first statement is largely meaningless since neither residence in a deprived area nor attendance at a school without a sixth form is mentioned explicitly in the admissions criteria.

The second statement is reflected in the fact that only 20% of the inaugural cohort is female.

The document notes that boarding will be available for learners living more than an hour distant. The proportion of boarders in the first cohort is significantly higher than expected.

It adds that boarding fees will be payable (and published on the School’s website) but it is expected they ‘will be subsidised by a government grant and a private investor’. There will also be a limited number of means-tested full bursaries, the criteria for which will also be published.

At the time of writing neither fees nor subsidies nor bursary criteria are published on the open pages of the website. It also mentions a subsidised transport scheme but provides no details. This is unhelpful to prospective candidates.

Students take A levels in maths and further maths, plus an A level in either physics or computer science. They are also prepared for STEP papers. All students pursue one further AS level at Exeter College, selecting from a choice of over 30 subjects, with the option to complete the A level in Year 13. Amongst the 30 are several non-traditional options such as fashion and design, media studies and world development. The School is clearly not wedded to facilitating subjects!

In maths students will:

‘…collaborate with those in other mathematics schools and meet, converse and work with staff and students from Exeter University’s mathematics department. They will have access to mathematical mentors from the University who will provide 1:1 and small group support for individual development and project work.’

Maths mentors will be 3rd or 4th year undergraduates and sessions will take place fortnightly.

All students will have a pastoral tutor who will ‘deliver a curriculum designed to meet the students’ development needs’. Some extra-curricular options may also be available:

‘Several clubs and societies will exist within EMS, these will be established as a result of students’ own interests. In addition, Exeter College’s specialist facilities, learning centres and other services will be accessible to them. Students will join their friends and other students from the College for sporting and enrichment activities including, for example, structured voluntary work, theatre productions and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme.’

I could find no reference to a University-provided enrichment and critical thinking programme or to Met Office involvement.

The Head of Exeter School was formerly a maths teacher and maths AST at Torquay Boys’ Grammar School. Other staff responsibilities are not enumerated, but the Contacts page mentions only one teacher apart from the Head.

Another section of the site says the School will be advertising for a Deputy and ‘teachers of Mathematics, Computer Science and Physics (p/t)’. Advertisements have been placed for several posts including a Pastoral Leader and an Outreach and Admissions Officer.

An outreach programme is being launched and business links will be established, but there are no details as yet. There are links to a KS4/5 maths teachers’ network sponsored by the Further Maths Support Programme.

Exeter’s 2015/16 Access Agreement says:

‘The University and the College are already joint sponsors of the innovative new Exeter Maths School and are developing a strategic approach to outreach that supports both curriculum enhancement in local schools and progression for the students enrolled in the school. Together with the South Devon UTC, these two new education providers offer opportunities for innovative collaborative approaches to outreach in the region.’

This sounds very much a work in progress.


Comparing the two schools

My 2013 post observed:

‘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.’

If anything, the two projects have grown even more similar as they have matured. To the extent that these are pilot institutions testing out a diversity of models this is not entirely helpful.

Both Schools are very small and KCL in particular offers a very restricted range of post-16 qualifications. There is downside to post-16 education on this model – otherwise we wouldn’t be exercised about the negative effects of small sixth forms – though both projects make some effort to broaden their students’ experience and, as we have seen, Exeter includes some shared provision with Exeter College.

The admissions requirements and processes are almost identical. It is important to recognise that neither institution is highly selective, especially in terms of overall GCSE performance and, in this respect, the comparisons with Kolmogorov and other institutions elsewhere in the world are rather misleading.

This is not the top 2% that Cummings cited as the beneficiaries in his essay. Even in terms of mathematical ability, the intake to these schools will be relatively broad.

The expectation that all will take STEP papers may be realistic but, despite the use of an aptitude test, any expectation of universal success is surely over-optimistic.

For Cambridge says STEP papers are ‘aimed at the top 5% or so of all A-level mathematics candidates’.  Fewer than 1,500 students took the most popular Paper 1 in 2013 and, in 2014, over 20% of participants received an Unclassified grade.

Cummings notes that approximately one third of those entered for STEP attend independent schools, meaning that roughly 1,000 of the 2013 cohort were in maintained institutions. There may be some marginal increase in state-funded STEP entry through these two schools, but the impact of MEI support elsewhere is likely to be more significant.

The priority attached to excellence is less pronounced than expected. But this is not matched (and justified) by a correspondingly stronger emphasis on equity.

Neither school gives priority within its admissions or oversubscription criteria to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A major opportunity has been lost as a consequence.

So there is insufficient emphasis on excellence and equity alike. These institutions exemplify a compromise position which, while tenable, will reduce their overall impact on the system.

The only substantive difference between the two schools is that one is located in London and the other in a much more sparsely populated and geographically dispersed region. These latter conditions necessitate a boarding option for some students. The costs associated with boarding are not transparent, but one suspects that they will also serve as a brake on the recruitment of disadvantaged students.

Exeter has no real competitors in its region, other than existing sixth forms and post-16 institutions, but KCL faces stiff competition from the likes of the London Academy of Excellence and the Harris Westminster Sixth Form, both of which are much more substantial institutions offering a wider range of qualifications and, quite possibly, a richer learning experience.

Both Schools are designed to suit students who wish to specialise early and who are content with only limited opportunities to work outside that specialisation. That subgroup does not necessarily include the strongest mathematicians.

It might have been different story if the Schools could have guaranteed progression into the most selective higher education courses, but this they cannot offer. There is no guaranteed progression even to the host universities (whose mathematics departments are not the strongest – one obvious reason why they were attracted to hosting maths schools in the first place).

Exeter and Kings no doubt expect that their Schools will help them to compete more effectively for prospective students – both through direct recruitment and, more indirectly, by raising their profile in the maths education sector – but they will not state this overtly, preferring to emphasis their contribution to improving standards system-wide.

There is no reference to independent evaluation, so one assumes that success indicators will focus on recruitment, a strong showing in the Performance Tables and especially Ofsted inspection outcomes.

A level performance must be consistently high and HE destinations must be commensurate. Because recruitment of disadvantaged students has not been a priority fair access measures are largely irrelevant.

Other indicators should reflect the Schools’ contribution to strengthening the maths talent pipeline and maths education more generally, particularly by offering leadership at regional and national levels.

At this early stage, my judgement is that the KCL project seems rather better placed than Exeter to achieve success. It has hit the ground running while Exeter has some rapid catching up to do. One is good; the other requires improvement.


Future Prospects


Prospects for the maths school programme

With just seven months before Election Purdah, there is no prospect whatsoever that the programme will reach its target of 12 schools. Indeed it seems highly unlikely that any further projects can be brought to fruition before the end of the spending round.

On assumes that the Regional Schools Commissioners are now responsible for stimulating and supporting new maths school projects – though this has not been made explicit – but they already have their hands full with many other more pressing priorities.

If Labour were to win the Election it seems unlikely that they would want to extend the programme beyond the two schools already established.

Even under the Conservatives it would be extremely vulnerable given its poor track record, the very tight budgetary constraints in the next spending round (especially if schools funding is no longer ringfenced) and the fact that its original champions are no longer in place at DfE.

With the benefit of hindsight one might have taken a different approach to programme design and targeting.  Paradoxically, the centre has appeared overly prescriptive – favouring a ‘Kolmogorov-lite’ model, ideally hosted by a Russell Group institution – but also too vague – omitting to clarify their expectations in a specification with explicit ‘non-negotiables’.

Universities were hesitant to come forward. Some will have had other fish to fry, some may have had reservations arising from fear of elitism, but more still are likely to have been unclear about the Government’s agenda and how best to satisfy it.

The belated decision to flag up the potential contribution to fair access was locking the door after the horse had bolted. Other universities will have noted that neither KCL nor Exeter paid lip service in this direction.

Because they were awarded a substantial capital budget – and were wedded to the value of free schools – ministers were driven to focus on creating new stand-alone institutions that might ultimately form a network, rather than on building the network itself.

The decision to create a set of maths hubs was the most sensible place to start, enabling new maths schools to take on the role of hubs when they were ready to do so. But, the maths hubs were a later invention and, to date at least, there have been no efforts to ‘retro-fit’ the maths schools into the network, meaning that these parallel policy strands are not yet integrated.


Prospects for the national maths talent pipeline

England is far from having a coherent national strategy to improve maths education or, as one element within that, a convincing plan to strengthen the maths talent pipeline.

Maths education enjoys a surfeit of players with overlapping remits. National organisations include:

A host of other organisations are involved, including the Joint Mathematical Council (JMC), an umbrella body, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), the United Kingdom Mathematics Trust (UKMT) and the School Mathematics Project (SMP).

This leaves to one side the maths-related element of broader programmes to support between-school collaboration, recruit teachers and develop new-style qualifications. There is a parallel set of equally complex relationships in science education.

Not to put to finer point on it, there are too many cooks. No single body is in charge; none has lead responsibility for developing the talent pipeline.

Ministers have been energetic in generating a series of stand-alone initiatives. The overarching vision has been sketched out in a series of set-piece speeches, but there is no plan showing how the different elements knit together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This probably has something to do with an ideological distaste for national strategies of any kind.

The recent introduction of maths hubs might have been intended to bring some much-needed clarity to a complex set of relationships at local, regional and national levels. But the hubs seem to be adding to the complexity by running even more new projects, starting with a Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme.

A network-driven approach to talent development might just work – I suggested as much at the end of my previous post – but it must be designed to deliver a set of shared strategic objectives. Someone authoritative needs to hold the ring.

What a pity there wasn’t a mechanism to vire the £72m capital budget for 12 free schools into a pot devoted to this end. For, as things stand, it seems that up to £12m will have been spent on two institutions with a combined annual cohort of 120 students, while a further £60m may have to be surrendered back to the Treasury.

We are better off than we would have been without the KCL and Exeter Schools, but two schools is a drop in the ocean. Even 12 schools of this size would have been hard-pressed to drive improvement across the system.

This might have been a once-in-a-generation chance to mend the maths talent pipeline. I hope we haven’t blown it.



October 2014

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