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