The chancellor can’t make maths schools add up

Several leading universities have declined the opportunity to open specialist maths schools, and the government won’t admit how many are now due to open, six months after setting aside millions in extra funding.

In last November’s budget, the chancellor Philip Hammond (pictured) promised an extra £350,000 a year for every new maths schools – institutions which combine maths A-levels with similar subjects such as physics and computing.

But Schools Week has learned that leading universities have turned down requests to run the schools, despite an impassioned public plea from schools minister Nick Gibb in March.

In March, he lavished praise on the outstanding-rated Exeter Mathematics School and King’s College London Mathematics School which both opened in 2014.

The schools are selective, requiring pupils to sit an admissions tests and undertake an interview. The minimum acceptable maths GCSE grade is an 8.

Last year, 98 per cent of pupils at King’s and 75 per cent at Exeter achieved an A or A* in A-level maths.

If you made a maths school too big it would in the end be detrimental to the region

But their success is yet to be replicated elsewhere. Only one similar institution, the Cambridge Mathematics School, has been approved for opening since 2012, and remains in the “pre-opening” phase.

Meanwhile, the universities of Oxford, Warwick, Bath and UCL, which rank among the top maths courses in the UK, do not intend to open a maths schools, while the University of Nottingham said the project was unnecessary in areas where universities already work with schools.

Professor Sarah O’Hara, pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at Nottingham, said the university already works with “a number of schools” including a UTC which specialises in STEM subjects, and that opening a maths school would be “duplicating” existing work.

Opening a maths school is also a “huge commitment” which takes “a significant amount of senior management time”, and she speculated that it would be “difficult” to recruit pupils in Nottingham.

The push for new specialist schools comes at a time when mainstream schools are dealing with a shortage of maths teachers.

In 2017-18, just 79 per cent of the required number of maths trainees were recruited. At the same time, maths has become the most popular A-level subject.

Dan Abramson, headteacher of the King’s maths school, said other issues could also put off universities.

“You are asking non-sector specialists to open what is perceived to be a potentially risky project that could be reputation damaging. Universities have longevity because they are typically risk-averse.”

When his own school opened, there were local concerns about the impact on other existing post-16 institutions.

“If you made a maths school too big it would in the end be detrimental to the region,” he said. “People were generally opposed to the idea of selection at 16. Anything that is tainted with the selection brush is treated in the same vein.”

Outside London the challenge of selecting pupils across a large region is also daunting for the sixth-forms.

Exeter Maths School provides around 40 boarding places, as it takes pupils from schools across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset.

Kerry Burnham, its headteacher, said maths schools should be viewed in the same way as specialist dance or drama schools, as they bring together young people who with a special aptitude and enthusiasm for the subject.

“These students can feel isolated in mainstream schools,” she said.

The Department for Education said it was working with “interested” universities, but a spokesperson would not reveal details of the discussions or say how many had agreed to set up a maths school.

The Cambridge Education Trust, the organisation behind the Cambridge Mathematics School bid, would not say when it plans to open the school.