Anne Whipple has come out of retirement to take on one last tough job: making maths challenging for the kind of 11-year-olds who can find any angle in a polygon, while simultaneously solving a linear equation.
She is taking on a new “top-top” set – the highest-performing 6 per cent of Year 7 pupils at Bulmershe School, Reading.
“I’ve taken equations much further than the rest of the school would have done,” she says. “You don’t want to scare them off, but all the time you are trying to see how far you can take these children.”
The school is one of four secondaries taking part in a pilot project funded by Simon Singh, author of several science books including The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, to create sets in maths for the most able. The hope is that they will challenge the pupils and keep them interested in the subject.
The project recognises that people who struggle with maths are not the only ones who sometimes find the subject dull.
“Maths was just boring for us from Year 7 until Year 9,” says Antoaneta, 16, now studying A levels in maths, further maths, physics and chemistry at Bulmershe. She wishes that she’d had the same opportunity to be stretched earlier on at school.
“It is good to pick out students who are finding it easy in class and make them do extra work,” she says.
Singh had been worried that a lack of mathematical stretch during the school years could hinder the country’s best maths talents.
The fundamental point of this project is to really nurture and support those students, as opposed to just settling for an A*
“My big concern has been that if maths is your thing, if you have a real talent for maths, then the current GCSE is a walk in the park,” he says.
“So for five years you are just treading water; worse than that, you’re developing really bad habits. You’re not used to being challenged, you’re not used to being out of your comfort zone, you’re not used to new ideas. Then when people get to university, they are just not prepared.
“The fundamental point of this project is to really nurture and support those students, as opposed to just settling for an A*.”
The idea that getting an A* – a grade 8-9 from this summer – might be “settling” may seem fantastical. But maths is one of those subjects that is known for its prodigies, from the primary pupils clutching GCSEs in the subject each year, to Ruth Lawrence, now a maths professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who at 10 years old became the youngest person to win a place at the University of Oxford.
Few will rise as far or as quickly, but research from England1 shows that the estimated range of abilities in a maths class can span seven school years. So schools, and school systems, have long needed to think of ways to teach children whose understanding is well ahead of their peers.
In Russia, the Kolmogorov physics and maths school is part of Moscow State University. It plucks children out at age 13 or 15 to board in Moscow and learn advanced maths from professors and research assistants at the university’s maths department.
In 2011, the UK’s coalition government called for 16 universities to sponsor similar sixth-form maths specialist colleges in England. Only two responded: King’s College London and the University of Exeter. But the idea has recently been further boosted by prime minister Theresa May saying that she wants specialist maths schools to be opened in every city through the free schools programme.
Maths is ‘not for an elite’
One approach to improving maths attainment, the East Asian concept of mastery – now being imported to many schools in the UK and the US – might seem at odds with top-top sets. Mastery is based around the idea of everyone moving through topics at the same pace, as well as a belief that everyone has the potential to become an excellent mathematician.
But the concept does allow pupils to study the same topics at different depths, which could be seen as being more in line with the Singh approach.
And the writer wholeheartedly agrees with one principle behind mastery: that maths is not just for an elite.
“I think a lot more people can be really good at maths,” Singh says. “I am not saying that people are born to be mathematicians.
“This idea is the complete opposite of a fixed mindset; if you are in a normal top set and you are good at maths, getting 100 per cent in every test, then that embeds a fixed mindset.”
The Mathematical Association (MA) recognises that there is no easy solution to boosting maths attainment at the top level, but argues that change is essential.
“Provision that challenges the highest attainers is certainly a challenge,” says Jennie Golding, president of the MA. “University maths departments are bound to employ those who are best qualified and increasingly they [the best qualified] are not home-grown; it should be a source of concern for us – it’s that exceptional mathematical ability that Simon’s trying to provide for.”
I want these children to think they are good at maths because they are having to work hard at it
The advantage of having a top-top set running alongside the usual top set is that pupils can move between them. At Bulmershe school, this has happened with students moving both up and down, as they would between other sets in the school. The set is also small, with just 15 students – half the number in the usual classes.
“I was surprised, to be moved up,” says Daniella, 12, from Bulmershe’s top-top set. “But my mum said that I should go for it. And you get more [teacher] time because the class is smaller.”
Singh stresses that the initiative does not mean pupils get an easy ride.
“I want these children to think they are good at maths because they are having to work hard at it,” he says.
How do the children feel about being stretched in this way? “I’m happy about being in the top-top set,” says Sam, 11. “Because I’m not doing easy things. If the teacher asks a question with 30 people in the class and you don’t get picked, they don’t really notice you. Here, you get lots of attention.”
Whipple shares her new pupils’ enthusiasm. “You get hard days; you get frustrating days,” she says. “But I’ve never had a boring day.”