What I’ve learned helping to found a specialist free school

The first year of Kings College London Mathematics School has proved the value of specialisation – and the risks of regulation overkill

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

5 September 2015

9:00 AM

King’s College London Mathematics School is precisely one year old. And on 13 August it woke up to AS-level results that make it one of the ten best state schools in the country. 97 per cent of students got an A in mathematics. 90 per cent of grades in maths and further maths were As. Students’ grades were, on average, two grades higher, across all their subjects, than would be expected from their GCSE results. As a governor, I bask in reflected glory.

Ours is a ‘free school’ sponsored by King’s, and it teaches talented, committed 16- to 18-year-olds. We select for potential, using our own test. But we also select by the education, and especially the quality of the A-level maths, that applicants could expect at their current school. Will coming to us ‘add value’? If not, someone else should have the place.

King’s Maths School, in other words, exists to nourish untapped mathematical potential. We believed that the country has a lot of it. And since 13 August, we have hard evidence that we were right.

Many students thrive on academic study. The surnames on our roll are London in microcosm: we’re not all Anglo–Saxon, nor all-Asian, and not even largely male. 43 per cent of our first cohort, all taking maths, further maths and physics, are girls, way above the national average. And there are no significant differences in the results achieved by different groups — not by gender, not by ethnicity, and not by whether students are eligible for Free School Meals, the school sector’s key poverty indicator.

These are seriously motivated students. Kim, for example, from a single-parent family, has a 90-minute commute each way, plus a job to help the family finances. She got AAA in maths, further maths and physics. For some, like Calvin, home is chaotic, and the school makes studying possible. From his GCSE grades, you’d have predicted two Ds for his maths AS-levels, not the two As he achieved. Calvin spends hours and hours on site, but that is nothing unusual. Getting these kids out of the building is a hard task.

So what follows? The first lesson should be obvious: great teaching delivers. Our school deliberately and of necessity hired teachers who are excellent mathematicians. They had to be very good at their subject. The whole rationale for a specialist school is that expertise — subject expertise — is a precondition for excellence.

The good teachers we could afford were mostly very young. They became truly effective through the teaching culture created by a superb head whose approach is shared with the best contemporary schools. As an academic and a university teacher, I find this an inspiration and also a source of shame: unlike academics, these schoolteachers think constantly about how they teach. They discuss, they analyse, they observe each other, they track their success in detail through the progress students make. That is why Glen, with huge potential but a C grade average at GCSE, went on to As. And why Kamil, predicted CCDD, could take 4 AS-levels and get As in them all.

So lesson two is that specialist schools work, not just because students find their tribe and learn from each other, but because teachers do the same. However, neither local authorities nor our successful and centralised academy chains are well suited to developing the small, specialist or quirky. Lesson three is the need for government to go on supporting individual start-ups and innovation, and not only work with the big guys.

And lesson four? We risk accountability overkill. The first year of a school’s life is harder than any of us imagined. Everything has to be developed from scratch. The top priority should be the quality of teaching but our senior team’s time was eaten up by other demands. Governors’ meetings were dominated by audits of statutory policies, worries over looming Ofsted visits, and duplicate financial reporting.

With a major university for a sponsor, the governors could offer some substantive help and, above all, reassurance: focusing on what was important wouldn’t bring disaster upon the school. That was our main contribution to the year’s success, and it depended heavily on our very special circumstances. It shouldn’t have been necessary.

Schools have objective external information available, from exams and past papers, about what students are achieving and what needs to improve. Academies have full annual audits. Piling up formal oversight is, in this situation, about risk-aversion, not reform. Its current scale deters others from doing what we did, and no wonder. Truly, this needs to change.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Alison Wolf is the author of The XX Factor, and Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public-sector management at King’s College London.

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Show comments
  • right1_left1

    The number of students being able to do anything of any value with the level of maths shown in the photograph (which appears to be related to electomagnetism aka physics ) is very small.
    When such people reach the end of their learning experiences what then ?

    Investigate black holes or multiverses or something from nothing consequences of quantum vacuum fluctuations ?
    piff paff puff.

    Teach another select minority of blighters to perpetuate such follies ?
    piff paff puff.

    What neeeds to be done is to ensure that as many of the young blighters as possible can do basic arithmetic manipulation of number and focus the teaching of the brighter students towards practical science and engineering.

    We cant afford to spend zillions producing those capable of looking for things like gravity waves or are able to meander fruitlessly via mathematical speculations surrounding such matters.
    Now it is claimed the Higgs boson exists….so what ?

    Lets build better mousetraps

    what IS the difference between Magnetic flux density (B)
    Magnetic field strength ( H)

    See the top right equation:
    It shows vector cross product of B and the operator whose name escapes me (the inverted triangle)

    Applications of that formula occurred long before Maxwell(?) derived it

    • rtj1211

      Have you not asked yourself whether superior knowledge of mathematics is rather a good thing for advanced 21st century engineering?? Whether it is useful in the study of climatology, complex biological systems? The City of London is now full of maths boffins (they call them ‘quants’) writing highly complex algorithms to try and beat the markets. Modern weapons are hugely complex and require detailed mathematics to guide them and control them.

      I think you need to widen your horizons as to where mathematics is now used.

      • right1_left1

        You claim I have not asked myself about maths-engineering.
        If you read my penultimate paragraph you will see that I commented on that and how important it is.

        Examples of wasteful maths led speculation’
        Climate change:
        Models written with insufficient data and insufficient knowledge of climate change causation.

        Weather forecasts
        Frequently inaccurate when major weather change is predicted
        This is so even with radar systems tracking short term weather trends.

        Models do not produce accurate predictions.of development strength or path.

        I believe it is true that the paths of fast flowing fluids thru’ constricting uneven surfaces cannot be desribed with any accuracy.
        No doubt blackboards full of equations could be produced attempting to indicate otherwise.

        As for models involved in stock market manipulation the less said the better.

        My objection was specifically to mathematics LED cosmology quantum mechancs and fundamental particle physics.

        nb:Oddly enough the equations shown on the photo represent applied maths knowledge in the mid to late 19th century.

        It is possible to setup vector equations in general terms that describe a system and then manipulate those equations using knowledge from pure maths.
        The problem is getting accurate basic equations.
        That is why the failures I list above happen.

        For example the energy output of the first atomic bomb was wildly different from theoretcal predictions
        As an engineering application of EMPIRICAL science it was a triumph..

  • Hamish Redux

    If you’re really teaching Maxwell’s equations, I’m very impressed. We didn’t get to them until my 2nd year at Cambridge,

  • ladyofshalot

    Very disappointing comments so far – and what’s with use of the word ‘blighter’ – what’s that about? All credit to the founders and teachers of this specialist free school. There are too many people damning the free schools on ideological grounds. We should be delighted that the local education authorities’ stranglehold on aspiration is finally being broken. This school sounds marvellous and an education from which my son would have thoroughly benefitted. However it was not available at the time in what some have described as ‘the bog standard comprehensive’. Fortunately he managed to attend a public school (by virtue of the much maligned assisted places scheme) and got the teaching in maths and physics he needed.

    • right1_left1

      Just out of interest Lady Shalot
      What does you son do now ?
      I take a chance because it is a well known axiom that when involved in confrontation never ask a question to which you do not know the answer.

      I was not knocking educashun in general
      In fact I pointed out what I think a state finaced educational system should do.

      Private education is a different matter
      Unfortunately it does not operate in the interests of the nation as a whole.

      The well rounded arts humanities curriculum has been applied for 70 years and the nation has failed and is technically bankrupt.
      Many public school graduates are good at milking the system , they run it dontchya know, and expressing moral sympathy for almost everybody except the white working class.

      • ladyofshalot

        Not sure what you mean however do agree with your point about the well rounded arts humanities curriculum which in manys is a shame because we need the techies.

        • right1_left1

          ur not sure what i mean about what exactly ?

    • rtj1211

      The point of Free Schools is after all to address the needs of those who the current system is failing. They shouldn’t be the same as that which already exists. They should try new approaches, new subject matter, new teaching groups, more innovative use of technology etc etc.

      We don’t need to abandon the traditional approaches for those for whom it works.

      What we should not accept is the acceptable collateral damage of those for whom the current system is an iniquitous farce.

  • Peter Stroud

    I remember many years ago when the USSR was running specialist schools – especially dealing with mathematics – and thinking that it would be good for this country. But, at that time there was no way that the state system would allow such a development. And now, at last it has happened, and within an enlightened state education system, made possible, not by a socialist government, but by the Tories.