Always talking up maths, in a country that talks it down

David Thomas, chief executive of Axiom Maths, ex DfE advisor and co founder of Oak National Academy

We live in a country where you gain social credit from saying you're bad at maths

David Thomas was one of the youngest heads in the country. He’s set up a national online academy and led on government schools policy. Now he’s on a mission to restore the reputation of maths.

Despite having already led a school, helped set up the country’s first national online academy during Covid, and led the government’s policy response to the pandemic, David Thomas still gets asked for ID in bars.

At 27, he became one of the youngest headteachers in the country when he took the hot seat at Jane Austen, a secondary free school formed three years earlier in a former Norwich shoe factory.

He’d spent the prior three years in management consulting.

There were “less polite words than brave” for his decision to leave the corporate world for headship, he says, but he reassured himself that if he failed no one would really blame him.

“They would blame the governors for appointing a 27-year-old who looked like a 12-year-old.”

David Thomas

Small moments matter

Given his age, the former Teach First graduate felt he had to work harder to prove himself.

To “show credibility” at the school, he taught the borderline year 11 maths class – a subject he sees as “the great leveller”.

“Maths doesn’t care where you come from, how many books you have at home or who your parents know. If you work hard and have the intelligence, you can thrive.”

Thomas speaks from experience. At primary school in Bristol, he was one of five children singled out by teachers for extra study at lunchtime so they could sit the scholarship exam at the “fancy” local independent school, Colston’s.

It’s an opportunity he likely would not have had if it wasn’t for the school’s intervention. Thomas’s dad worked in B&Q after losing his IT job in the dotcom crash. His mum is a former ESOL teacher who helps the elderly.

But Thomas was the only one of the five who had a parent free to get him to the exams – the others ended up not sitting it.

“That makes me think quite a lot of education and justice. Those small moments matter.”

He later got to take further maths A Level in a class of one, where he found joy in solving complex equations.

David Thomas as a schoolboy

He planned to study maths at university, but made a “snap decision” to take politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford instead, after it was recommended by his career advisor’s computer test.

Despite assuming he’d become an investment banker “like everyone else”, Thomas was “bored out of his mind” during a 10-week internship at Deutsche Bank. So, he joined Teach First and taught at Westminster Academy, a turnaround school in a “giant green cuboid”.

Its maths department was “overstaffed” (“you don’t hear that often”) and he got to spend a third of his timetable team-teaching borderline year 11 classes with a senior leader. “I benefitted an insane amount from that.”

But looking young was sometimes a hindrance. He once dressed in school uniform for a fancy dress day and was refused into a staff breakfast meeting by the “dinner ladies”.

Out of my depth

High turnover meant that within four years he was a maths assistant senior leader, but “quite out of my depth”. He was inspired to try a different sector by the school’s city banker-turned-business studies teacher, whose “life experience outside the system made him wiser. He knew when the education sector was being silly.”

After almost three years at McKinsey, armed with “diversity of experience”, he took on the challenge at Jane Austin, part of the Inspiration Trust then run by current children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza.

When Covid hit, his management planning expertise showed. Thomas surveyed families on what IT equipment they had, stocked up on wi-fi dongles and created online lessons a month before lockdown was announced.

While some colleagues thought him ‘a bit mad’, they “learned to tolerate me”.

On the Friday before lockdown, Thomas told his pupils “every generation has its crisis. We’ll worry about this one”.

To staff, he said that if they wanted to “close the gap” between their pupils and those at the fee-paying Norwich School up the road, “then this is the moment we’ve been waiting for”.


David Thomas

No honeymoon

His planned Easter honeymoon to Argentina sabotaged by Covid, Thomas instead contacted “anyone I knew in or around government” offering his services.

Department for Education civil servants took him up – asking for a plan to teach children during lockdown.

“It wasn’t quite what I had in mind!” he admits. He worked with Matt Hood (who now leads Oak National Academy) on reaching “everyone we could to join the effort”.

They had just ten days before term started. But school leaders shared their curriculum resources, IT experts produced a website and “a load of teachers in their bedrooms were filming lessons”. Oak National Academy was born.

David Thomas as a young boy

“I’m really proud of what we did, but we shouldn’t pretend it was the greatest act of professional publishing in history.” The real pressure came when the website went live, with lessons broadcast into thousands of homes.

“I had some fancy pants title [curriculum director], but I wasn’t the person putting my lesson out to the whole country to judge.”

Some criticised the lessons on social media, which Thomas said was “really unfair. It wasn’t the time, it was very exposing for them.”

By the end of the summer term, Oak’s online classes had been viewed “north of 25 million” times.

Trust central team concerns

After the Oak adventure, Thomas returned to Inspiration in a new strategy director role before joining Astrea Academy Trust in Cambridgeshire as a regional director.

But he found it “emotionally very difficult”. He used to have “1,100 children and families I knew… down to the shopping centre security guards who told me if they were naughty at the weekend”.

Now it was “5,000 kids, and you don’t know any of their names and families”.

“You think it’s going to be similar [to headship] and it’s not at all. The last thing you should do is walk in and start deciding what to do, because you can’t undermine headteachers. It’s not clear how you add value to them.”

He also had a “huge crisis of how I justify my salary”. While these types of academy trust central team roles are “still quite new”, Thomas doesn’t think the sector has “nailed that model collectively. I don’t think we’ve yet got as much out of those jobs as we could.”

He instead moved into policy: joining the DfE on secondment in 2021 as an adviser to the then education secretary Nadhim Zahawi (later made permanent). Asked during his interview what the sector’s biggest challenge was, Thomas said attendance – and was tasked with solving it.

Nadhim Zahawi

Zahawi’s business background meant he “didn’t want fluff and flowery documents, he wanted a data dashboard to sort out the actions needed”.

Two years on, persistent absenteeism is just over 20 per cent. While still “very high”, Thomas says it’s “a hell of a lot better than many other countries right now” – pointing out that more than half of all children in New Zealand don’t attend school regularly.

Thomas also worked on DfE’s SEND and alternative provision reforms, culminating in the SEND improvement plan promising new national standards and funding tariffs.

He doesn’t believe the two sectors should be “separated the way we do” and questions why one child with SEND could end up in a social, emotional mental health school while another studies in AP.

“There should be one system for children who need additional support beyond what their school can offer them, including SEND and AP, that is treated with the same levels of funding and respect for professionalism and expertise.”

Maths pupils ‘hiding their talent’

He left DfE last year to become the first permanent chief executive of The Mathematics Education for Social Mobility and Excellence charity (MESME), since rebranded to Axiom Maths.

The charity was founded by billionaire Alex Gerko, whose algorithmic trading company XTX Markets has given over £20 million to maths projects since 2020.

The key focus is ‘maths circles’ – free state school maths clubs to nurture a love of the subject in promising pupils, with the aim of 10,000 new pupils a year joining a nationwide network. The concept, also championed by Dominic Cummings, is popular in Gerko’s native country of Russia.

While many see the biggest barrier as recruiting maths mentors for pupils, Thomas says a bigger issue is “the cultural challenge”.

David Thomas
David Thomas

He’s horrified by recent national newspaper articles on maths, pointing out a recent opinion piece linking the subject to being flogged. Another likened prime minister Rishi Sunak’s maths-to-18 policy to a move from authoritarian China’s playbook. (While he reads newspapers, he points out his Cambridge home with his wife and two-year-old son does not include a television).

“We live in a country where you gain social credit from saying you’re bad at maths. If you talk at a dinner party about [it], your social status increases.”

This stigma is making budding mathematicians “feel like they have to hide their talent to fit in”. Maths circles would provide them “a space to feel valued and cared for”.

Axiom’s research found that half of disadvantaged pupils who are top attainers in maths at the end of Year 6 don’t go on to get a top GCSE grade.

Thomas feels he “could so easily have been one of those children” but was “fortunate” to attend a school “where they did loads to counteract the social pressures that talk down maths”.

Thomas was recently selected to be the Conservative party candidate in Norwich South – a seat the party has not held since the 1980s.

He admits it is an “interesting time [in politics] to be doing that”. Selected on a pledge to “increase social mobility”, he says he wants to “make a bigger difference for the pupils I served” – but is reluctant to say more.

Whether he becomes an MP or not, he does hope to return to headship one day. “I’d be disappointed if I don’t. It’s a wonderful job.”

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One comment

  1. K. Bolton

    …so you’re not intelligent if you’re not good at Maths? I love basic maths…that is all we need in life. It’s time we taught ‘ life’ maths from years 7 to 9. After that, if you want to choose to go on with simultaneous equations, algebra, Pythagoras theorem etc…it becomes an
    ‘ option’ at school. Never saw the point of the above, still don’t . Teach Computer Science instead. I’ve had pupils who were top set fail the subject and those with an appetite for problem solving excel in the subject. A foundation level and a higher level to make it accessible for all.