Adding a touch of glamour to mathematics

31st May 2013 at 01:00
The man behind a specialist school has stars in his eyes

The Brit School in London, England, has a formidable reputation for nurturing the performing talents of its pupils: its alumni include singers Adele, Jessie J and the late Amy Winehouse. So when the founders of a new school say that they want to emulate the Brit School's success, it is clear that they are aiming high. But instead of students practising their singing, they will be doing sums.

The King's College London Mathematics School is one of a new wave of specialist maths schools in England, and headteacher Dan Abramson expects it to be the highest-performing state school in the country.

"We want to be the school that has the most successful applicants for top universities," Mr Abramson tells TES. "At the moment, it's Queen Elizabeth's School in Barnet (a London borough). It is a very good, selective school but it's not going to be as specific as our group."

In total, 16 new mathematics schools for 16- to 19-year-olds are planned in England. The first two - Mr Abramson's school, backed by King's College London, and another supported by the University of Exeter - are due to open in September next year. They are based on the Kolmogorov Physics and Mathematics School in Moscow, Russia, which is part of Moscow State University and has a reputation for turning out top mathematicians.

Professor Alison Wolf, who chaired the King's College London project group, says that, for their students, the mathematics schools will be "very glamorous".

"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."

Mr Abramson is currently head of mathematics at Highgate School in North London, the selective private school where poet and writer T.S.Eliot once taught future poet Sir John Betjeman. In The Good Schools Guide, the school says that its staff are "dynamic, well-qualified and demanding".

Mr Abramson arrived at Highgate after graduating from the University of Cambridge, where he gained a first-class degree in mathematics and went on to do a fourth year at master's level. "When I was in my fourth year at university, it became clear to me that I wanted to spend some time teaching," he says. "I'd do a couple of years, I thought, while I was still enthusiastic, then I'd do something more relevant.

"I was arrogant, young and excited to get into the classroom, so I spent six months trying to persuade schools to take me on without training. When I did get to Highgate and saw their teaching, it blew my mind; it was amazing. So I trained as a teacher here through the graduate teacher programme and three years later became head of (mathematics)."

He has been active in setting up an outreach programme for schools in Haringey, the London borough that stretches from affluent Highgate to deprived Tottenham, where riots broke out in 2011. The outreach programme consists of a day a term of extension work, designed to inspire students aged 13 and older who have shown a particular aptitude for mathematics.

The combination of working with students in a selective school - "our expertise is in transforming A pupils into A* pupils", he says - and doing outreach work meant that Mr Abramson felt ideally qualified to apply for the headship of the new school.

"In Highgate School, much like other independent schools, there is a sense of entitlement to the best education. It is not just about being able to afford education, but about pupils knowing about education, knowing what the country has to offer and being able to take advantage of that. This project is one way of helping reach people for whom those aspirations and sense of entitlement are not a given," he says.

Mr Abramson believes that there is also a need in England for schools that can take children who are really interested in mathematics and provide them with tailored, high-quality teaching. "The biggest challenge will be finding the right pupils," he says. "Most schools have a catchment area and so you go to the 10 feeder schools. But we are a school accessible to the whole of London and we only have 60 places in the first year."

Would-be students will be selected via tests and interviews. Once at the school, the only A-level qualifications on offer will be mathematics, further mathematics and physics. But alongside the exams, which are normally taken by students aged 16-18, a broader curriculum covering humanities and languages will be offered and students will take an AS level in another subject.

"My school (St James Senior Boys' School in Twickenham, which has since moved to Ashford) gave me aspirations," Mr Abramson says. "It had that sense that if you were clever and liked a subject, you could take it where you wanted to go. It's a message that exists in lots of schools but pupils don't necessarily believe it or know how to get there.

"The underlying message from King's College London Mathematics School is that if you come here and work hard, and think in ways we encourage you to think, then you'll get to a top university."


Professor Rick Trainor, principal and president of King's College London, is full of praise for Mr Abramson's "inspirational" teaching. "He's had a big impact on the pupils that he's taught in his career to date, and he's also had significant experience in outreach work to encourage talent from people in schools where there aren't that many people doing mathematics to A level," Professor Trainor says.

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