The Introduction in England of Selective 16-19 Maths Free Schools

The Chancellor’s 2011 Autumn Statement has confirmed weekend news stories that the Government will introduce selective 16-19 maths free schools for gifted learners throughout England.

Section 53 of the Education Act 2011 provides for the creation of 16-19 free schools. Such institutions are not bound by the School Admissions Code, including the provisions preventing the extension of selection to schools other than designated grammar schools.

DfE guidance makes clear that 16-19 free schools can select students on the basis of GCSE grades or other criteria, including interviews with candidates.

One 16-19 free school – the London Academy for Excellencehas already been approved to open from September 2012 and will eventually admit 400 gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds from Newham and other London boroughs.

Now the Government is set to extend the concept to specialist schools for gifted young mathematicians.

Weekend Press Reports

During the weekend prior to the Statement the Daily Mail broke the story that the Chancellor would announce a £600 million capital investment to support the creation of 100 further free schools by 2015.

It further revealed that at least 12 of these would be selective 16-19 free schools with a maths specialism which would ‘act as a model for similar institutions specialising in other subjects’.

The Mail said that the schools would help make England a ‘world leader’ in maths. They would be sponsored by university mathematics departments and would be located in major cities. Bids would be invited from 2012. In the longer term, the model would be expanded nationally.

An unnamed Government source is quoted:

‘We want professional mathematicians from universities to design a new 16-18 curriculum because frankly A levels are not cutting the mustard…These schools are intended to develop new curricula and methods with deliberate experimentation by teams of professional mathematicians….Insofar as there is a goal it is to produce pupils who excel in Cambridge’s entrance papers and similar tests.’

He adds:

‘This is an experiment and we want people to come up with other projects in other subject areas.’

implying that – funding permitting – the creation of a whole sector of specialist selective 16-19 institutions is potentially on the cards.

The story was followed up by other media over the remainder of the weekend.

The BBC suggested that the funding would not be drawn from the existing education budget and that there would be a special applications process alongside the existing standard free schools process.

The Independent added that some of the schools would concentrate on pure maths while others would have a wider STEM focus, combining maths with physics, chemistry or computer science.

Moreover, the schools would not be expected simply to accelerate young mathematicians through the curriculum but to ‘help them excel at top universities’ and ultimately ‘work in digital technologies, produce breakthroughs in applied maths or develop innovative companies’.

Apparently, Osborne and Gove pushed forward the idea ‘despite obstacles in Whitehall’. It is unclear whether this means other Ministers (perhaps Cable and Willetts at BIS) or DfE and Treasury mandarins.

What the Statement said

The new policy duly appears in the Autumn Statement although there is no commitment to 12 or more institutions:

‘So today, with the savings we’ve made, I am providing an extra £1.2 billion – as part of the additional investment in infrastructure – to spend on our schools.

Half of this will go to help Local Authorities with the greatest basic need for school places.

The other £600 million will go to support my RHF’s reforms – and will fund 100 additional free schools.

These schools will include new Maths Free Schools for 16-18 year olds.

This will give our most talented young mathematicians the chance to flourish.

Like the new university technical colleges, these Maths Free Schools are 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.’

Here is the wording in the Treasury’s Autumn Statement document:

‘In order to raise school standards and support areas facing the greatest pressures on school places, the Government will provide an additional £1.2 billion for capital investment in schools in England, including:

  •  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; and
  • an additional £600 million to support those local authorities with the greatest demographic pressures. This funding is enough to deliver an additional 40,000 school places.’

The associated Fiscal Impact of the Autumn Statement appears to suggest – in the Table on page 49 – that there is actually £710m in the ‘100 free schools’ line, divided equally between FYs 2013-14 and 2014-15.

It is understood that £110m of this is attributable to the Barnett Formula, so wings its way to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where it can presumably be spent on other educational priorities of the relevant Education Ministers’ choosing, since they do not have free schools.

Assuming that the figure of 12 schools still has credence and these schools receive a proportionate share of the £600m, that means an overall budget of £72m for capital costs.

The recurrent costs will presumably need to be met from within the wider schools budget, which is protected in real terms by the ruse of recycling its share of savings on the public sector pay bill.

The link to economic growth is consistent with arguments for investment in gifted human capital that have been advanced before on this blog but, given the time lags, it is hard to see how it will have impact within the lifetime of this Parliament, or even the next, other than indirectly through the capital investment and new jobs associated with the building projects.

International precedents

DfE will be aware of the many international precedents for such institutions, including:

  • The National University of Singapore High School of Mathematics and Science (NUS High School) which runs the six-year Integrated Programme for 13-18 year-olds – already floated several months ago as a reform that England might emulate. The school targets the most able 10% of pupils, taking in 170 in Year 1 (from around 2,000 applications) and a further 70 in Year 3;
  • the Korea Science Academy of KAIST which has also featured in a previous post. It currently has 450 students in Grades 10-12. The annual admission is restricted to 150 students from throughout Korea and a maximum of 18 international students; and
  • the Illinois Math and Science Academy, one of several such institutions in the USA, which accommodates 650 students on a three-year residential programme.

There are several more such institutions around the world.

Questions and issues

It is to be hoped that DfE will soon release further details of what is planned for there are many unanswered questions including:

  • Location. Unless the schools are residential or virtual (both are possibilities) the intake will need to live within ready travelling distance of the schools, which are likely to be located on or close to university campuses given the emphasis on the involvement of university staff. One might envisage that the ideal bidders are likely to be Russell Group universities with strong STEM courses based in sizeable conurbations – the likes of Imperial (London), Warwick (Coventry) and Bristol spring to mind.
  • Target group. Candidates are likely to be students with A* grades in maths and sciences who wish to attend university to read maths or a related STEM subject. One possible proxy might be the number of entrants to the target subjects in HE with AAB grades or equivalent at GCE. Data from 2009-10 suggests there are some 6,500 in their first year of undergraduate study (maths 3,160; physics 1,490; chemistry 1,038; computer science 875). Maybe 25% of the equivalent cohort a few years hence would be resident in England and live close enough to one of the 12 institutions to contemplate attending, giving a potential target group for admission of 1,600 or so annually, or 130 per site.
  • Priority for disadvantaged students. 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 for that purpose. A significant proportion of the target group will have received their pre-16 education in the private sector and/or come from wealthy backgrounds. The target group would be too small if it was to be drawn exclusively from disadvantaged backgrounds on the London Academy for Excellence model, so encouraging institutions to give priority during the admissions process would be the likely solution.
  • Relationships with HE. It will be attractive to students if these institutions help to break down the barriers between school and HE by offering dual enrolment and other opportunities to access HE modules while still at school. They also provide opportunities to deploy HE staff in schools and vice versa, so improving the capacity of schools to provide access to undergraduate content and the capacity of HE to understand and meet the needs of gifted students. Transition between school and HE might be made considerably smoother as a consequence. On the other hand, while universities might relish the opportunity to use such schools as feeders for their own courses, students will need the freedom to attend other universities if they choose to do so.
  • Relationships with 11-16 schools. By creating a selective pathway beginning at age 16, the Government raises questions about the preparation of younger pupils for admission to these schools. This will be particularly pertinent if learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are to be a priority target group. There is therefore a strong case for developing a mathematically gifted track for pupils aged 11-16 that can be accessed from any school. There are also questions about whether these schools would be expected to have a wider outreach role, whether supporting the education of prospective entrants or helping to improve the quality of maths education in other schools. The relationship with initiatives such as teaching schools and specialist leaders of education (SLE) would need to be developed.

No doubt we will return to this subject as more details emerge.


November 2011

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