From Russia, with Gove

The education secretary is looking to the former Soviet Union for inspiration for his new maths free schools. Richard Vaughan reports on the scheme to secure the UK’s science future
13th April 2012, 1:00am


From Russia, with Gove

There was a time - most of the 20th century, in fact - when pinching an idea from Russia would have conjured up images of James Bond or, perhaps, a John le Carre novel.

Even today, relations between the UK and the former Soviet state can rarely be described as more than cool, such is the ingrained distrust between them.

However, despite the frosty exchanges between the two countries, the UK government is looking to copy part of Russia’s education system: the federation’s highly successful specialist mathematics schools.

As revealed by TES earlier this year (“Nurturing a nation of number crunchers”, 17 February), education secretary Michael Gove is considering basing his first wave of maths free schools on Russia’s version, particularly the little-known Kolmogorov Physics and Mathematics School in Moscow.

The proposals to set up a new type of school focusing purely on maths and physics were first laid out by Chancellor George Osborne during his Autumn Statement in November last year.

In that speech, Osborne pledged an extra #163;600 million in cash for free schools, which he said would help to fund a dozen or more specialist maths schools for 16- to 18-year-olds over the next three years. Osborne told the House of Commons that the new schools would aim to “give our most talented young mathematicians the chance to flourish”, while also producing “more of the engineering and science graduates so important for our long-term success”.

The drive to improve mathematics in this country is seen by many politicians as long overdue. A review into maths commissioned by David Cameron while he was in opposition and led by television personality Carol Vorderman highlighted what she believed to be the dire state of the subject in England.

According to the report, A World-Class Mathematics Education for All Our Young People, just 15 per cent of students go on to study maths after GCSE; the report also pointed out that a quarter of pupils in mandatory education are not taught the subject by a specialist maths teacher.

A subsequent study by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) last month claimed that universities were being forced to “dumb down” mathematics in their degree courses because students found it too difficult.

The maths situation the country faces is far from rosy, it would seem, but since Osborne’s pre-Budget speech four months ago, very little more has been said about the new type of specialist maths school. Until, that is, the name Kolmogorov was mentioned.

The Kolmogorov School in Russia is a highly selective institution that is part of Moscow State University. Its pupils are taught by professors and research assistants at the university, meaning that they are given access to some of the brightest mathematical minds in the country.

The school was named after Andrei Kolmogorov, a Soviet mathematician who was pre-eminent during the 20th century. In his pomp, Kolmogorov was instrumental in advancing various scientific fields, such as probability theory, classical mechanics and computational complexity.

In 1963, the Specialized Physics and Mathematics Boarding School - Number 18 was established at Moscow State University, open only to students with an exceptional ability in the subject. At the time, Soviet apparatchiks had decided that the Communist country should be divided up into catchment areas for specialist maths boarding and day schools, all of which were designated by a single number. It was only after Kolmogorov’s death in 1987 that Number 18 became the Kolmogorov School.

Then, as now, students joined the schools from the age of 15 and stayed until they were 17 - attending for the last two years of the state education system.

High price to pay

Alex Gammerman, a Russian professor in computer science at Royal Holloway, University of London, and chair of the university’s Kolmogorov Lecture Committee, says the Russian schools are hugely successful in improving students’ ability in mathematics, but they also have their drawbacks.

“The idea was to find the best young mathematical minds in different parts of Russia,” Gammerman says. “But there are psychological problems among some of the students,” he warns. “These schools are boarding schools, where pupils are given lectures by some of the best lecturers in the country. Often, lecturers will give them a problem to solve and the students will compete to finish it first.

“It means students can be doing mathematics constantly - 24 hours a day - trying to outdo each other,” Gammerman adds. He says that, because of their advanced skills, when the students go on to university they can quickly become bored, and end up dropping out.

However, despite the relative downsides, Gammerman feels that the need for similar schools in the UK is long overdue.

Indeed, mathematics is now seen as a “fundamental strategic priority” by the UK government, and the Department for Education has been holding talks with interested parties from the mathematical community about the best way to establish the specialist schools.

One member of that community who attended the consultation with the DfE was Alexandre Borovik, an expert on selective maths schools and a lecturer at the University of Manchester.

Borovik studied and taught at the physics and mathematics boarding school of the Novosibirsk State University, which sits in the south of central Russia, near to the border of what is now Kazakhstan. During the Soviet era, the school served a catchment area of Siberia, the Soviet Far East, Kazakhstan and Soviet Central Asia, covering a population of approximately 40 million people.

According to Borovik, the UK is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to providing such specialist schools. France was one of the first countries to establish something similar, he says - the classes preparatoires aux grandes ecoles, commonly known as classes prepas. Other such establishments exist throughout Europe. But when it comes to the UK, Borovik believes, there is nothing similar outside the top private schools.

“So far, it has been only the independent schools that have been able to produce mathematicians on anything like a similar scale, but there is nothing in the state sector,” he says.

Selective without being elitist

To make it work, Borovik says Gove’s proposed maths free schools would have to be “exceptionally selective”, and recommends that they should try to emulate the schools in eastern Europe and Russia. But in doing so, he says, it is important that they are not perceived to be elitist.

“Schools like Kolmogorov are incredibly selective, but it is important not to call them ‘elite schools’. This is something that has caused great annoyance in the professional mathematics community,” Borovik says.

“These schools are simply for children who have an interest in mathematics. Calling them elite is highly negative, and we don’t want them to be hothouses.”

So far, just one maths free school proposal has been put forward publicly, which is being backed by Ormiston Victory Academy in Norwich.

The Sir Isaac Newton Free School is hoping to address the low take-up of mathematics and science in Norfolk.

Rachel de Souza, principal of Ormiston Victory Academy, is helping to lead the maths free school application, and says that out of about 5,500 students aged between 16 and 18 in Norfolk, just 600 take maths, biology, chemistry or physics.

“The number of students who could be taking these subjects is growing and there is a real need for these subjects in this country in terms of employability,” de Souza says.

The school will have an open admissions policy, but it will primarily be looking for students who have achieved an A* or A in maths and science subjects at GCSE.

The Sir Isaac Newton Free School aims to act as a hub for teachers in the area, and could be used for teaching secondments to improve continuing professional development, creating close links with universities.

The idea has been widely welcomed by the mathematics world, but some onlookers have called for the plans to be laid out very carefully.

Trevor Hawkes, an emeritus reader and former professor at the University of Warwick, is a member of the Royal Statistical Society and ran a similar scheme when he was at Warwick, working with schools in Coventry. The programme went well, but he warns that the government should not try to emulate the Russian schools too closely.

“We noticed that the take-up of further maths was very low in the area so we set up the Further Mathematics Support Programme in partnership with schools in Coventry,” Hawkes says. “We rounded up the most talented mathematicians and our lecturers taught them. It was a wonderful success, as it allowed the students to realise they weren’t the only oddballs.

“But schools like the Russian special schools can end up hothousing their pupils, which isn’t good,” he adds. “They can produce very distinguished mathematicians, but my experience working with them is that they can be socially underdeveloped, and very often arrogant. The government needs to avoid this if it is to get these schools right, but linking the schools with university departments is a very good idea.”

With just one fully formed proposal on the table, Gove has a long way to go if he is to realise the dozen or so schools by the end of this Parliament.

But it is just possible that until he does, the UK will fall further behind the rest of the world when it comes to producing the best mathematical minds.

The day when Russia sends its spies to pinch our educational ideas is some way off yet.

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