Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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23/5/17: UK Conservative Manifesto (4): specialist mathematics schools

There is an intriguing single sentence tucked into the 2017 UK Conservative Manifesto on page 50:

We will introduce new funding arrangements so we can open a specialist maths school in every major city in England.

And that's it.  The previous sentence is about Universities sponsoring academies (as considered in this blog post) and the following sentence about the creation of new Catholic schools.  No detail, no context, no consideration of other subjects.

As far as I can see, there are 3 models which are in current or recent usage which could, in principle, be adopted.  If you can think of more, please let me know!  So, it seems to me that there's an opportunity here for the mathematics education community to do some thinking as to what we would like to propose. Let me first set out the models of which I'm aware and then propose a way forward.

Subject specialist schools
These started gradually in 1988 - first city technology colleges which were brand new schools, then (1994) technology colleges emerged from existing schools, then languages (1995), arts and sport (1996).  By 2010 88% of all English secondary schools were specialist, with the list of possible specialisms having grown to 10, including mathematics and computing.  Subject specialism brought additional funding, which was discontinued in 2010 after the change of Government.

What started as a means of creating 'centres of excellence' shifted to being a means of improving standards as the numbers increased.  Schools were able to select 10% of their intake on the basis of 'aptitude', although this option was only rarely taken.  In all schools there was the requirement to adhere to the National Curriculum, the idea being that the specialism permeated through other subjects - so in a sports college mathematics lessons might consider graphs showing world records, for example.

So, albeit that there would be only specialism - mathematics - rather than 10, this would be one model for mathematics college.  How admissions would work, and whether or not these schools would be grammar schools (see this blog entry) would need to be worked out.

Specialist mathematics schools in Exeter and London
Since 2014 specialist mathematics schools have existed in Exeter and London, sponsored respectively by the University of Exeter and King's College, London.  Called schools but actually sixth form colleges, they both take about 60 students in each of two year groups, with all students doing mathematics and further mathematics A levels and then a restricted range beyond that, in the case of the London school a very restricted range, also doing physics and then a choice of AS (half an A level) in computing or economics.  Admission is through GCSE results and a specially written test.  This is, I suspect, the model in mind by the drafters of the Conservative Manifesto, but that is not explicitly stated.

Additional support within school
For some time now the Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) project has found ways of supporting students doing Further Mathematics A level in schools where either there was not the expertise to be teaching it, or sufficient numbers of students wishing to do so to make a viable teaching group.  This support has included regular teaching an afternoon a week at a central location, virtual lectures and tutorials, and one-off events of varying length.

Let me consider each of these models in turn.  I have to be honest, I was never a fan of the concept of subject specialism and thought it would be a passing fad, although I was surprised it finished as soon as it did.  Estelle Morris as Labour Education Secretary 2001-2002 said that specialist schools would improve standards by 'increasing diversity' but it's not at all clear to me why we should make that linkage.  There is a more general point here: when assessing the credibility of a statement starting, "We will improve educational standards by..." one method is to see if it is possible to put a plausible case for the opposite.  Here is an example, might we not also argue that standards can be increased by ensuring an entitlement to a high quality, well thought out curriculum for all?  Similarly it can be argued that standards can be increased by allowing youngsters to work at their own pace (so unrestricted differentiation) or in meaningful collaboration with others (so restricted differentiation).  And so it carries on.  Although one might argue that one increases standards not by what you do but by how you do it, with vision, initiative, ownership, sense of change etc. actually being the important things here rather than the specifics of what is being done.

Whilst in principle it was possible for youngsters and their parents in densely populated areas to choose one school rather than another according to its specialism, I am not aware of any evidence of that actually happening.  And the concept of specialisation became quite perplexing in sparsely populated areas, where living in a certain place meant that only one secondary school was accessible.

Added to some quite complex problems to solve in terms of admissions if mathematics is to be the only specialism, and their relationship with grammar schools, I would not be advocating the subject specialism model as one to pick up again after the election.

Re: the Exeter and London specialist mathematics schools, I can see that these schools are exciting places to be, for both students and teachers very likely to get good results and positive evaluations.  But I wonder if this is a model which we would want to replicate more generally? I have a number of reasons for saying this.  One is that it seems to me that the success of such initiatives is precisely because they are unusual, it becoming increasingly difficult to find teachers, students and sponsors, an to maintain momentum, as the idea grows.  I do also worry about committing 16 year olds to such a narrow range of subjects as a condition of getting into these high prestige schools, this is somewhat out of kilter with what happens in other parts of the world.  Allied to this, in the absence of similar schools for other subjects, I worry that youngsters with a generally strong academic profile will opt for the school when, in fact, mathematics is not their principal area of interest or strength.

Which leaves the MEI model of support within the existing school provision.  As I said earlier, I strongly suspect this is not the model the drafters of the Manifesto have in mind, but I do think it is worth considering as an alternative.  It keeps other options open and keeps youngsters where they are, with resources benefiting a larger number of people.

But as I said at the beginning, there may be other possible models here, or factors concerning the models above which have not occurred to me.  But, as already stated, there is an opportunity for the mathematics education community to have a contribution to the debate here, let's do so with a view to working in the best interests both of future mathematicians and the country, recognising also the needs of all youngsters.

2 Comments to 23/5/17: UK Conservative Manifesto (4): specialist mathematics schools:

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Jenny Spence on 28 May 2017 06:58
Chris would have loved to have gone to a specialist maths school. All his years through school were spent in looking forward to the time when he could finally drop all the subjects he didn't want to do, and do only maths. It's taken till 2nd year of degree! Interestingly, the local 6th form college offered the best choice for him instead of the nearest grammar school - there was no way he could do his choices of maths, further maths and computing without doing 2 other subjects he didn't want to do. They were too small to offer the flexibility.
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Geoff on 29 May 2017 01:29
Thank you Jenny, can certainly see that the specialist mathematics school would work for some, I suppose I am struggling to see how the idea fits into a coherent policy for all youngsters and the needs of industry etc. Would be interesting to have this discussion face to face soon!

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