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Specialist maths free schools fail to spark university interest


Just three universities have agreed to back specialist maths schools designed to cream off the best young mathematicians for sixth-form study.

In November 2011, the government announced it wanted to create a "network" of specialist maths schools for 16- to 18-year-olds to "give our most talented young mathematicians the chance to flourish".

At the time, it was widely trailed by government sources in national newspapers that between 12 and 16 maths schools would be set up.

The state schools would be loosely based on the Russian model, which linked schools with universities, such as the Kolmogorov maths school, which is part of Moscow State University. The Russian school was named after the famous mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov, and produced some of the best mathematical minds in the country taught by university academics.

By January 2013, King’s College London and the University of Exeter had announced that they would be opening specialist maths schools; the government said its aim was to create a network of such schools across England.

But last July, the then-education minister Elizabeth Truss called on more universities to join Exeter and KCL and announced that a "fast-track" system had been put in place to help them do so.

And a freedom-of-information request has now revealed that since then only one application has been received – from the University of Central Lancashire. Five further expressions of interest have been made but not yet yielded an application.

The Department for Education revealed the low numbers in response to the FoI, which was initially refused on the grounds that applicants may be "deterred from applying if their involvement was disclosed at an inappropriately early stage".

David Reynolds, professor of education at the University of Southampton and chair of the numeracy task force – which oversaw the implementation of the National Numeracy Strategy – said that backers may not be coming forward because of a wariness about filling places in such a specialist school.

But a small number of schools was not necessarily a problem, he said, if what they learned from their experience could be shared around.

He said: "We know that effective mathematics teaching is different from other subjects. Whole-class interactive teaching seems to matter more in mathematics than English, for example.

"A deeply problematic aspect of government policy is there is no mechanism to ensure a take-up of what free schools have discovered. 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.

"The Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts – an HE institution backed by Sir Paul McCartney that is planning to open a sixth-form free school – has had a huge amount of publicity due to the amount of high-profile people backing it. I wouldn't guarantee the same amount of publicity for a maths school – it's not necessarily going to be in the headlines, so something has to be done to make sure we know what it's doing."

Applicants for the maths free schools are able to apply outside the normal free school waves and are asked to complete a short proposal setting out the role that the university is expected to play in the running of the school.

They also have to give details such as the planned number of places for pupils each year, the staffing structure, school timetable and how the school will share its resources with nearby schools and more widely.

Both the Exeter Maths School, which has some weekly boarding places, and the King’s College London Mathematics School, which is a day school, are due to open in September.

A DfE spokesperson said: “High quality maths education not only improves young people’s life chances, but is vital to the government’s long term economic plan for securing Britain’s future. University-backed specialist maths schools are one of a number of ways we are encouraging more young people to go onto study maths in higher education.

"We have also announced 32 maths hubs – designed to spread world class maths teaching across the country, and introduced new maths and physics chairs – PhD graduates recruited to transform the way the subjects are taught.

“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.”

Related stories:

Adding a touch of glamour to mathematics - May 2013

Gove looks to Russian model for specialist maths schools - February 2012

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