How a billionaire plans to make English pupils ‘world’s best at maths’

UK's biggest taxpayer has already committed £25 million to boost maths attainment. So who is he and what's the plan?

UK's biggest taxpayer has already committed £25 million to boost maths attainment. So who is he and what's the plan?

A Russian-born billionaire who was the UK’s biggest taxpayer last year is committing tens of millions of pounds to make English school pupils the world’s best in maths.

Alex Gerko’s algorithmic trading company XTX Markets has already given £20 million to maths projects since 2020.

That includes piloting a key stage 4 curriculum with Mathematics Mastery and establishing “maths circles” through the Mathematics Education for Social Mobility and Excellence charity (MESME), which Gerko set up.

XTX is now launching a maths excellence fund, backed by at least £5 million to “develop, test and evaluate collaborative ways to increase attainment and progression” for children aged from 11 to 18.

Opening next month, the fund will initially support schools in a few regions before expanding nationally “as we better understand what is working”, said Si Coyle, XTX’s head of philanthropy.

‘Outstanding support for high potential pupils’

The scale of the investment puts the company among the biggest philanthropic donors in education. Just 71 charitable foundations – across all sectors – handed out more than £10 million last year, according to a report from the Association of Charitable Foundations.

Coyle said the priority was to “help schools serving disadvantaged communities to provide outstanding support for their high potential pupils”.

The cash would “combine direct support for schools and support for charities that work with schools, including curriculum, enrichment, tutoring and teacher development.”

Coyle said three million jobs in England needed advanced maths skills, a figure that would “only increase in the years ahead, driven by growth industries like data science and technology”.

Research the company commissioned from the University of Nottingham found that while 74 per cent of the most advantaged pupils stayed on the maths “excellence pathway” from 11 to 16, that dropped to 49 per cent of pupils on free school meals.

‘Huge opportunity to be best in world’

One of the key focuses will be “maths circles”, trialled by MESME since 2020. The free, out-of-class maths clubs aim to boost state school pupils’ mathematical thinking and curiosity. 

About 2,300 pupils now take part. The aim is for a nationwide network, with 10,000 new pupils joining each year. 

David Thomas, a former DfE special adviser who recently joined MESME as its chief executive, said while England was performing better at maths than ever, there was a “huge opportunity to go further and be the best in the world.

“This is an achievable goal. If half of top-performing but disadvantaged 11-year-olds don’t go on to get at least a grade 7 at GCSE, then we have both a duty and an opportunity to be better.”

MESME pledges to double the number of PhD pupils in mathematical sciences at a UK university by 2035, including poorer pupils in England.

They also want to boost the number of pupils achieving “high grades” in A-level and GCSE maths. 

The charity says year 7 and 8 pupils suitable to take part in maths circles are those who have achieved greater depth in key stage 2 SATs, or those enthusiastic about the subject. 

The charity tells schools at least 30 per cent of pupils taking part should be eligible for pupil premium. 

Russian education inspired maths plan

The maths circles are an export from Russia, where Gerko was born. He grew up in a deprived suburb of Moscow, but studied a specialist maths programme at the city’s renowned School 57, which he credits for his business success.

His company made £667 million in net profits alone in 2021. The Sunday Times Rich List estimated he paid £487.4 million in tax last year – making him the biggest single taxpayer in the country.

Gerko, who has spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, became a British citizen in 2016. 

He has previously said maths circles were aimed at parents who could not afford to pay for private tuition. They would show youngsters, no matter their background, “how beautiful maths actually is”.

But where to find maths mentors?

Teaching expertise, however, is a sticking point. The circles require one mentor for every six pupils and the charity wants mentors who are “mathematically well-qualified”. 

Thomas admitted they will have to be “creative about how to find enough quality people”. They are trialling “all kinds of ideas from training sixth-formers to employing part-time graduates.

“Half of disadvantaged children who are high-attainers at 11 are no longer high-attainers by 16. That is a huge loss of human potential that affects both those children as individuals and us as a wider society. 

“We are focused on stopping that loss.”

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  1. Mike Dunn

    Instead of launching special projects, how about we just fund schools adequately? Maybe the good maths teachers would stop leaving in droves.

  2. Mr Michael Bawtree

    This programme needs ENTHUSIASTIC and KNOWLEGEABLE, GIFTED teachers who have the capacity to ignite a lifetime curiosity in maths in 11-16 year old pupils.
    1) increase achievement at GCSE
    2) increase numbers taking A-level
    3) invent a new degree at university called Mathematics Teaching
    4) feed these graduates straight back into primary and (especially) secondary schools. Pay teachers with this degree a premium.

    (Retired teacher with 50 years teaching experience)

  3. We have been pushing an initiative for Maths for a long time. We are an AI/Algorithmic platform with actual live tutor support (Tutorwiz). We start with a deep dive assessment going back to Yr1. The kids, I would say, enjoy it and most stay for quite a while. We also incentivise them as well with vouchers. (It’s the only way to get state school students to do the work. Private is different, of course). We have a good track record of getting kids from where they are today to an improved state in their GCSEs. We are passionate and understand the comments below, but when we speak to teachers (we work in schools), they say it is like pushing treacle uphill!!!

  4. What a fascinating idea (above), and what great, diverse, responses.

    Mike Dunn: points out that teacher recruitment and retention is a massive issue. Many recent governments in the UK also appear to want to control everything from the top. All of this diminishes the profession of teaching and reduce teachers’ links to independent universities (example: the establishment of the ‘Institute of Teaching’ for accreditation). Reducing real funding and teacher training providers will accelerate the need for replacing an apparently failing system with something. Do we know the complete agenda of the current government, right now?

    Ashlee Betts: if bad behaviour emerges in classroom practise, are you or your staff able to try to see why, on a lesson by lesson basis? Please have a look here: it is a big effort, but with just two cycles, this really helped me:

    Michael Bawtree’s idea is a real long term plan, and it may also help with Ashlee’s real concerns. But as Mike identifies, the biggest effect might be in recognising and re-professionalising ALL teachers of all subjects, as well as the shortage ones. Either way, money is key to this, but so is time and genuine, self-driven, individual CPD – if we are ever to fill the gap with the best teachers possible, as Michael correctly identifies and the country clearly needs. Then, some form of accountability for that CPD could be both valuable and welcome.
    (Current teacher of maths)

  5. At Investec in my role as Head of Social Investment we organised weekly sessions with volunteers from our data analytics team to help students from our community partners with maths – past exam papers mainly. The students turned up and the volunteers loved it and were able to bring maths to life in a way I have never seen before. Let me know if you want to discuss this as a model. Susan