The sixth-form col­lege aim­ing to solve the prob­lem of widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - KING'S COLLEGE LONDON -

The high­est-per­form­ing mixed state school in Bri­tain is one you might never even have heard of. Founded only three years ago, King’s Col­lege Lon­don Math­e­mat­ics School is a spe­cial­ist sixth-form col­lege in South Lon­don, set up as a free school and spon­sored by the univer­sity. It is se­lec­tive – ac­cept­ing only chil­dren with an un­usu­ally high pas­sion for and achieve­ment in maths – but cer­tainly not elit­ist.

In fact, its pupils are chil­dren who tended to feel like geeks in their state schools, iso­lated by their long­ing to dis­cuss the cal­cu­la­tions be­hind fid­get spin­ners rather than spin­ning them. Ow­ing to its strong re­la­tion­ship with the widen­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion team at King’s, when you walk in, you im­me­di­ately see that the eth­nic mix looks like the real Lon­don, not the rar­efied en­vi­rons of an in­de­pen­dent school.

The other thing you no­tice is the em­pha­sis placed not just on maths books but all books. The li­brary is full of posters ex­plain­ing the value of lit­er­a­ture, while ev­ery teacher’s of­fice door has a sign an­nounc­ing what they are cur­rently read­ing. In­deed, when I meet head­teacher Dan Abram­son, I dis­cover that he is, per­haps ap­pro­pri­ately for a maths teacher, half­way through Jonathan Franzen’s The Cor­rec­tions.

He ex­plains why they need their stu­dents to keep up a broader ap­proach to life. “When we started with [a spe­cial­ist school in] maths, it was ques­tioned, like, ‘Is that re­ally OK? Surely you shouldn’t spe­cialise to that de­gree?’ I think peo­ple were wor­ried that if you only did maths, you were miss­ing out on the rest of your ed­u­ca­tion, and that is a rea­son­able con­cern. Here, we work very hard on wider read­ing.”

Nat­u­rally, though, it all comes back to maths in the end: “We have cho­sen ex­am­i­na­tion boards that use com­plex lan­guage and don’t shy away from that be­cause it is ac­tu­ally nec­es­sary to com­mu­ni­cate sub­tle ideas in maths,” he says, adding that stu­dents “often come here with quite skewed at­tain­ment pro­files – good at maths but not nec­es­sar­ily as good as English – so our pro­gramme sup­ports that”.

We walk around the school, which sits be­neath a mod­ernist coun­cil tower block on a busy round­about in Lam­beth, and con­tains a sign in An­cient Greek from the door of Plato’s Academy, which trans­lates as “Let no one ig­no­rant of ge­om­e­try en­ter here”. Abram­son, a for­mer head of maths at High­gate in­de­pen­dent school, un­der­stands it but is re­laxed about the fact that no one else does.

White­boards and ca­sual seat­ing ar­eas abound, for any­one seized by the urge to pick up a marker pen and de­con­struct a maths prob­lem with their mates.

A fair-haired girl us­ing a pink cal­cu­la­tor sits at one with a group of boys; another girl works out a prob­lem while wear­ing a leather jacket em­bla­zoned with hand-painted graf­fiti. Head­scarves, train­ers and the ac­cou­trements of mul­ti­cul­tural Lon­don teenage style merge here, but the con­ver­sa­tions are all about maths.

One boy com­mutes in from Le­ices­ter ev­ery day. His teach­ers say he uses the jour­ney as think­ing time, “be­cause he is so into the Col­latz con­jec­ture, an un­solved maths prob­lem. He’s done reams of work on it – it’s his pet project.”

The school is much smaller than other sixth-form col­leges, with 70 stu­dents in each of two year groups. About a quar­ter of its cur­rent leavers have of­fers from Oxbridge, and the vast ma­jor­ity of pupils go on to Rus­sell Group uni­ver­si­ties. A small mi­nor­ity have opted for a straight-to-work route, with one stu­dent on an en­gi­neer­ing ap­pren­tice­ship at Dyson. Abram­son, a Univer­sity of Cam­bridge grad­u­ate, stresses that “Oxbridge is not for every­one”, be­fore de­bunk­ing the myth that you also need to play the cello and be head of your school de­bat­ing team to get in. “In maths, they don’t care about you be­ing an all-rounder. Their en­tire ba­sis is: are you good at this sub­ject?

“What we do is teach our stu­dents their sub­jects re­ally well, and that doesn’t re­quire hugely ex­pen­sive fa­cil­i­ties – it re­quires good teach­ers. And that is where the state sec­tor can match the in­de­pen­dent sec­tor. It is one thing to be bright, but another thing to be bright and well looked after.

“The idea that you are just in­nately good is rub­bish – you can al­ways progress a child.”

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