Specialist maths schools, again

This post investigates the Government’s latest efforts to establish a national network of university-sponsored specialist mathematics free schools for 16-19 year-olds. It:

  • Recapitulates the difficult history of this policy since it was first announced in 2011
  • Reviews in more detail developments in the nine months since my last post on this topic
  • Analyses the guidance document for new applicants, published with a companion press release in March 2018 and
  • Considers the prospects for success this time round.

I have been tracking the evolution and development of Government policy on specialist maths schools and reporting on a regular basis.

Previous posts in this series include:

The first section of this post draws selectively on some of this earlier material.


The chequered history of specialist maths schools


Media reports trailing the 2011 Autumn Statement referred to Government ambitions to establish 12 university-sponsored 16-19 maths free schools during the lifetime of the Coalition Government.

The Statement itself made no reference to a numerical target:

‘The Government will…invest an extra £600 million to fund 100 additional Free Schools by the end of this Parliament. This will include new specialist maths Free Schools for 16-18 year olds, supported by strong university maths departments and academics.’

Elsewhere it mentioned infrastructure spending of £355m for this line in two successive financial years (2013-14 and 2014-15), but the balance of £110m within this £710m total is accounted for by the Barnett formula.

Hence one might reasonably have assumed that some £72m was provisionally earmarked for the capital costs of maths free schools, spread equally across these two years.

The original idea belonged to Dominic Cummings, then a political adviser to Michael Gove at DfE.

He describes (January 2017) how ‘Gove’s team’ subsequently worked it up, then sold it to the Treasury when the Chancellor needed a science-related announcement for the Autumn Statement.

In February 2012 the TES (in a story now paywalled) reported that:

‘The DfE has hosted a consultation meeting on the new free schools with interested parties from the mathematical community in order to outline its plans.’

‘TES understands that officials within the Department for Education are now keen to establish the schools on the model of Kolmogorov, a boarding school that selects the brightest mathematicians in Russia.’

Cummings also cites the Kolmogorov model. His essay ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’ (2013) reflects:

‘We know that at the top end of the ability range, specialist schools, such as the famous Russian ‘Kolmogorov schools’… show that it is possible to educate the most able and interested pupils to an extremely high level…We should give this ~2% a specialist education…’

But a contemporary PQ reply shows that DfE was not necessarily wedded to this approach, or focused exclusively on the very top of the attainment spectrum:

‘Alex Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Education when he expects the first free school specialising in mathematics for 16 to 18 year-olds to open; how many 16 to 18 year-olds he expects to enrol in free schools specialising in mathematics by 2015; with which universities he has discussed these free schools; and what guidance he plans to provide to people who wish to apply to open such a school.

Mr Gibb: We are developing proposals on how specialist maths schools for 16 to 18-year-olds might operate and will announce further details in due course. We are keen to engage with all those who have an interest to explore possible models and innovative ideas.’ (20 February 2012, Col 724W)


KCL and Exeter apply

King’s College London was in discussion with DfE as early as March 2012 and submitted a formal proposal on 25 June that year, for a school opening in September 2014.

This emphasises KCL’s intention to:

‘…recruit a very significant number of students from groups who would not otherwise have access to high quality mathematics provision, and increase the total pool of high-achieving young mathematicians and applicants for maths, and also physics, engineering and related degrees… and in so doing also increase the socio-economic diversity of these faculties.’

There is also heavy emphasis on outreach provision, to help bridge the gap between many target students’ GCSE experience and the school’s intention to enter them for the STEP examination  in Year 13.

KCL confirmed its intention to proceed in a December 2012 press release. This revealed that it had received from the Department both a development grant and an additional outreach grant

‘…to support work with mathematically talented 14-16 year olds in schools without high levels of specialist Mathematics teaching’.

But FAQ briefing published at the same time by DfE, while advising that:

‘…Universities can apply to set up a specialist maths Free School on their own, or in partnership with another strong education provider…’

also made it clear that special development funding was not on offer to KCL’s successors:

Is there financial support available to develop our plans?

Not at the beginning. Once we have approved a proposal, we do offer some support to cover the costs of project management, and recruiting some staff before the school opens, in the same way we would for any Free School.’

Almost simultaneously, Exeter University submitted a formal proposal for a near clone of the KCL school. This says:

‘Since recruitment will be dependent upon a growing reputation, it is expected that full capacity may not be reached until year 4 and that shadow funding, in the spirit of that described in the Free School financial guidance, will be required to offset the higher cost per learner in the start-up period.’

Minutes of Exeter’s University Council meeting on 21 February 2013 reveal that the proposal had been approved, though with the opening brought forward a year from the proposed date of September 2015, and:

‘…awarded a project development grant of up to £300,000’

A DfE press release (January 2013) had in fact already confirmed approval, adding:

‘The ultimate aim is to create a network of schools that operate across England which identify and nurture mathematical and scientific talent.’

For further analysis of the actual funding received by these two Schools from Academic year 2013/14 onwards, see below.


Problems recruiting further university sponsors

Two months later, in March 2013, DfE once more invited expressions of interest from ‘universities to open specialist maths free schools in September 2014 and beyond’,

Cummings recalled (in his 2017 post) that officials faced an uphill battle:

‘…when I visited maths departments they all knew about these schools because university departments in the West employ a large number of people who were educated in these schools but they all said ‘we can’t help you with this even though it’s a good idea because we’d be killed politically for supporting “elitism” [fingers doing quote marks in the air], good luck I hope you succeed but we’ll probably attack you on the record.’ They mostly did.

The only reason why the King’s project happened is because Alison Wolf made it a personal crusade to defeat all the entropic forces that elsewhere killed the idea (with the exception of Exeter). Without her it would have had no chance. I found few equivalents elsewhere and where I did they were smashed by their VCs.’

A TES profile of Baroness Wolf (May 2013, now paywalled) includes her advertisement for maths schools, adding that a national network of 16 schools was now envisaged (though Cummings has since claimed this was pure invention).

In June 2013, education minister Liz Truss wrote to the heads of university mathematics departments to chase new bids:

‘…I want to encourage other universities to consider whether they could run similar schools: selective, innovative and stretching our brightest and best young mathematicians. It is a logical extension of the role that dozens of universities have already played in sponsoring academies.

I also wanted to highlight to your colleagues that Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access, is enthusiastic about the role university led Maths Free Schools can have in encouraging more young people to go on to study maths at university, and to reap the benefits that brings. Professor Ebdon has also confirmed to me that he considers the sponsorship and development of Maths Free Schools as contributing to higher education ‘widening access’ activity, and that it would be perfectly legitimate to allocate funding ring-fenced for improving access for underrepresented groups towards the establishment of such schools.

….If we approve a proposal, we do then offer financial support to cover the costs of project management, and of recruiting some staff before the school opens, in the same we would for any free school.’

That same month, Truss made clear in a speech at the ACME conference that a network of such schools was still the aim:

‘These schools will not only improve standards in maths teaching, but will equip talented young people from low-income backgrounds with the skills they need to study maths at university…

…I hope that this is the start of a new network of world-class free schools, under the aegis of top universities, helping to prepare talented 16- to 19-year-olds from any and every background for the demands of university study.’

Contemporary versions of the generic free school pre-opening guidance refer to a Project Development Grant for 16-19 free schools of £0.25m. This remains unchanged in the April 2017 guidance, though a note says this is subject to review.

But confusingly a DfE press release in November 2013 appeared to suggest that maths-school-specific development grants were also once more available:

‘The KCL and Exeter schools are the first to take advantage of a development grant made available by the Department for Education for the creation of university-led specialist maths free schools.’

The Ebdon view that access agreement funding could be used for this purpose did not appear in the subsequent edition of OFFA’s guidance to universities on preparing those agreements, which was published in February 2014.


Freedom of Information, or not, and subsequent inactivity

Meanwhile, in October 2013, TES had submitted a freedom of information request to discover details of expressions of interest, firm proposals, approvals and rejections.

This was repeatedly resisted by DfE but, in June 2014, the Information Commissioner’s Decision Notice (number 50529321) directed that the details should be released.

The Notice itself revealed that a third proposal had been submitted, by the University of Central Lancashire. This was presumably rejected.

It adds that:

‘‘..[DfE] confirmed that funding arrangements were only confirmed for the development of maths free schools in February 2014.’

A TES follow-up (July 2014) mentioned that five further expressions of interest were also submitted but did not result in firm proposals. The names of the institutions involved have never been made public.

The DfE statement in this piece says it ‘continue[s] to welcome applications and expressions of interest from universities…’

The KCL and Exeter schools duly opened in September 2014 as planned. In October Cummings claimed a fourth proposal was then in the pipeline, but this never materialised.

New Secretary of State Morgan is quoted in another TES piece (now paywalled):

‘I think that some [universities] are clearly waiting to see how the King’s and Exeter schools go. Clearly there is a huge amount of effort required, but I think King’s will be enormously successful, and I am hoping they will be leading by example.’

There was no reference to specialist maths schools in the 2015 Tory Election Manifesto.

Wolf published another celebratory piece in the Spectator (September 2015) but subsequent Ministerial guidance to OFFA (February 2016) referred only in general terms to encouraging universities to sponsor free schools.

The Morgan era White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ (March 2016) was launched at the KCL Maths School and features a case study of the Exeter School, but a commitment to reproduce the model elsewhere is conspicuous by its absence.


Renewed interest under the May Government

But, as May took over from Cameron as Prime Minister, there were clear signs that interest was reviving. A puff piece on the KCL School in the Independent (March 2016) concludes:

‘…ministers have not abandoned the idea of similar colleges being set up in the future.

Nick Timothy, chief executive of the New Schools Network, the charity which supports free schools, said: “If the best universities are serious about taking on more pupils they need to take direct action to make sure schools are giving children the right opportunities.”’

In September 2016 May’s ‘great meritocracy’ speech advocated university sponsorship of free schools in general terms, mentioning the KCL Maths School as an example.

The selection green paper Schools that work for everyone (September 2016) followed a similar line.

Then in January 2017, a prime ministerial press release heralding the imminent Industrial Strategy green paper spoke of:

Plans to use the successful free school model to expand the provision of specialist maths education across the country

Working with local partners including top university maths departments to spread new specialist ‘mathematics schools’ building on high-performing Exeter and Kings College London Mathematics Schools.’

Related media coverage hinted at great ambition. The Telegraph referred to:

‘…a drive to create a specialist maths school in every British city…’

while the Sun inflated this to:

‘…a specialist school to be opened in every town….’

In the event, the Green Paper Building our Industrial Strategy (January 2017) covers maths schools under the heading ‘Addressing STEM shortages’:

‘Maths free schools such as Exeter and King’s College London, have the potential to drive up standards in the subject and ensure advanced mathematics education is available to pupils who might not otherwise be able to access it. The Government will consider how to enable this model to spread and deliver benefits for mathematics education in their wider community. We will seek partners to open mathematics schools of this kind across the country.’

At this stage, university sponsorship appeared not to be a requirement.

When it appeared in February 2017, OFFA’s Strategic Guidance on 2018-19 access agreements said:

‘We are therefore further strengthening our guidance by asking you to increase the pace and scope of your work with schools to raise attainment, so that the teaching and learning outcomes for schools that work with universities are enhanced. This includes:

    • the sponsorship of schools where there are issues around attainment and progression;
    • the establishment of new free schools (including mathematics free schools) to support disadvantaged and under-represented students
    • other significant partnerships, support and activity with schools.’

So maths schools do get mentioned, but this formulation explicitly links them to support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This despite the fact that the 2017 Performance Tables had shown that only 11 of 63  students (17.5%) in the A level cohort at KCL Maths School and five or fewer of the 57 A level students (so a maximum of 8.8%) at Exeter Maths School were disadvantaged in DfE’s terms, that is in receipt of pupil premium in the final year of KS4.

In his Spring 2017 Budget the Chancellor committed to funding for 110 new free schools, to include:

‘…new specialist maths schools to build on the clear success of Exeter Mathematics School and King’s College London Maths School – which my RHF the Prime Minister visited earlier this week.’

The Budget Document refers to ‘an investment of up to £320m in this Parliament’ to fund ‘up to 140 schools including…specialist maths schools’ of which 30 will open by September 2020 (and so count towards the Government’s manifesto commitment to open 500 free schools by 2020).


‘The new free schools will be located where they are most needed to improve the choice of schools available to parents, following a rigorous assessment of local factors.’

In April 2017 Baroness Wolf gave a presentation at the Annual Conference of the heads of university maths departments in which she declared that current Government policy was:

‘Strongly in favour of specialist maths schools. Top priority for No 10 if Conservatives win this election.’

A subsequent slide added:

‘The No 10 Policy Unit would like to convene a meeting, soon after the election, at Downing Street, to discuss next steps with interested universities

I have been asked to contact key players in the mathematics associations and in universities

Critically important to discuss alternative possible models, funding issues.’

The 2017 Conservative Election Manifesto referred to the policy intentions set out in the selection green paper, linking this to the maths school commitment:

‘‘We will make it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools. We will introduce new funding arrangements so we can open a specialist maths school in every major city in England.’

This appears to imply a network of 10-20 schools.

Whether the planned No 10 Policy Unit meeting survived Timothy’s departure in the wake of the Election is unclear.

Two Parliamentary Answers from June 2017 explain first that:

‘The government would like to open more maths schools across England. Kings College London Mathematics School and Exeter Mathematics School are proving highly successful. Both are rated outstanding by Ofsted and were well above average for post 16 progress in 2016.’

and second that:

‘The Government hopes and expects more universities will come forward to be involved in school sponsorship and free schools, including more mathematics schools, although support need not be limited to those means.


The funding history of the two existing maths schools

Given the repeated references to funding above, it is interesting to analyse the accounts for the KCL and Exeter schools over this period. The table shows my best effort to interpret those published by Companies House to date.

In the case of academic year 2013/14, the accounts cover the period from incorporation of the trust (5 April 2013 for KCL and 3 May 2013 for Exeter) to 31 August 2014. For all subsequent years the accounts cover the year ending 31 August.

In sum, it appears as though both schools received additional recurrent grant of £300-350,000 in the first two years, but that additional central Government income has declined since then. As the subsequent sections show, the post-2018 funding position is not yet entirely clear.


AY KCL School Exeter School
2013/14 Capital grant: £1.82m

Start-up grant: £300K

Recurrent net of GAG = £300K

Capital grant: £1.843m

Start-up grant: £300K

Outreach grant: £22K

Recurrent net of GAG = £322K

2014/15 Capital grant: £767K

GAG: £740K

Start-up grant: £304K

Other grant (per student top-up?): £7K

Recurrent net of GAG = £311K

GAG: £236K

Start-up grant (aka leadership diseconomies grant): £196K

Outreach grant: £143K

Recurrent net of GAG = £339K

2015/16 Capital grant: £30K

GAG: £1.076m

Start-up grant: £60K

Other grant (per student top-up?) £189K

Recurrent net of GAG = £249K

Capital grant: £5K

GAG: £635K

Start-up grant: £123K

Other grant: £55K

Recurrent net of GAG = £178K

2016/17 Capital grant: £7K

GAG: £1.089m

Other grant (per student top-up?) £136K

Recurrent net of GAG = £136K

Capital grant: £6K

GAG: £834K

Start-up grant: £12K

Other grant: £60K

Recurrent net of GAG = £72K


Developments since June 2017

The paragraph above from the Industrial Strategy Green Paper immediately follows material highlighting the provisional findings of the Smith Review of post-16 mathematics.

But it took a further six months for the Smith Review Report  to appear (July 2017). This discusses specialist maths schools under the heading ‘University support for mathematics teaching’.

Smith also notes that DfE:

‘…hopes and expects more universities will now come forward to be involved in school sponsorship and founding free schools, including more Maths Schools, as well as other partnerships with schools to raise pupil attainment.’

Brief descriptions of the KCL and Exeter schools follow, Smith commenting:

‘These schools represent an effective model for delivering highly specialised 16-18 mathematical education, drawing on the expertise of university departments.’

But he goes on to discuss other ways in which universities can contribute to improving 16-18 mathematics, and his recommendation stops short of advocating a network of such institutions:

Recommendation 12: The Department for Education, in supporting the Prime Minister’s desire for higher education to engage more with schools, should seek ways to encourage universities to consider specialism in 16-18 mathematics if establishing new schools, sponsoring existing schools or providing other support to schools, particularly in local areas where level 3 mathematics participation and achievement is poor.’

In November 2017, the Budget provided additional support for mathematics including:

  • ‘£600 for every extra pupil who decides to take Maths or Further Maths A levels or Core Maths – with over £80 million available initially, and no cap on numbers’ (this subsequently became the Advanced Maths Premium) and
  • ‘£18 million to fund an annual £350,000 for every maths school under the specialist maths school model, which includes outreach work.’

The Parliamentary Reply to Commons PQ 116028 (1 December 2017) confirmed that the budget line for specialist maths schools was £3m in FY2019-20, followed by £5m in each of FYs 2020-21, 2021-22 and 2022-23. These figures are exclusive of Barnett consequentials.

Just before this, the Industrial Strategy White Paper was published (November 2017) which articulates the maths school commitment in the following terms:

‘We will work with top maths universities to expand the specialist maths school model pioneered by Exeter University and King’s College London. We are providing £350,000 annual funding for every maths school to deliver the specialist maths school model, including extensive outreach work with schools and teachers to ensure all students have the chance to achieve their mathematical potential.’ (p107).

The annual funding premium is clearly intended for the two existing schools as well as several new providers.

Excluding the KCL and Exeter schools, and allowing for some reprofiling from financial into academic years, there is sufficient for approximately a dozen more maths schools from September 2019.

However, a further Parliamentary Reply (January 2018) added:

‘The Government has not set a specific target for the number of maths schools it will establish in each of the next five years. We want to work with leading universities to establish high quality schools, ensuring our most mathematically able students succeed in mathematics related disciplines at top universities.’

In March 2018, a detailed guide to the Advanced Maths Premium was published, revealing that specialist maths schools are excluded because they:

‘…are already required to enter all of their students for maths and further maths A level courses.’

The previous month, Government guidance to the Office for Students on access and participation (February 2018) opted not to mention sponsorship of maths free schools specifically, so following the line adopted in Recommendation 12 of the Smith Review:

‘The Government expects more higher education providers to establish stronger long-term relationships with schools. This could include becoming involved in school sponsorship, opening free schools and supporting mathematics education in schools (although support need not be limited to those means), with the aim of raising attainment and progress for disadvantaged and under-represented groups so that more pupils are qualified to progress to higher education. As part of this, providers should be able to demonstrate clearly the impact their support is having on the schools and pupils.’

In its ensuing Good practice advice on preparing access and participation plans for 2019-20, OfS itself refers to five kinds of intervention to raise attainment, the first of which is:

‘school sponsorship, establishing a maths school, or other formal relationships with schools’.

But a previous paragraph has already noted that:

‘…attainment interventions may be most effective if they are targeted at students under 16 years old.’

The Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper (March 2018) proposes that all applicants to set up free schools will need to show how theirs will:

‘…seek to attract pupils from a range of different backgrounds and communities, and provide evidence of their efforts to reflect the social and ethnic make-up of the area’

And, moreover, the Government will:

‘…ensure the potential impact on the intake of neighbouring schools is thoroughly assessed before a new school is approved.’

On Friday 26 March 2018, DfE published:

The New Schools Network (NSN) also published a supporting statement offering advisory support for

‘groups that wish to partner with a high-quality university to apply for a maths school’.


The March 2018 Press Release

The press release was published slightly before the guidance document.

It explains that there is now a new application round for specialist maths schools although, strictly speaking, the opportunity that existed since 2011 was never formally withdrawn.

It suggests that such institutions have multiple purposes (a critic might say too many). These include:

  • Giving the mathematicians of tomorrow the opportunity to develop.
  • To help raise standards and get more children studying maths.
  • To encourage more young people to study maths at A level and beyond.
  • To increase the number of young people studying maths, helping them to secure good jobs and boosting the economy.
  • To help more young people learn from the best mathematicians in the country.
  • Promoting social mobility and increasing the number of young women mathematicians. 
  • To enable universities to help our most talented students, regardless of background and gender.
  • Extending opportunities to students with a passion and talent for mathematics to develop their potential and access the most prestigious maths-related degree courses.
  • To recruit disadvantaged students who have not previously had the opportunity to fulfil their potential in mathematics.
  • To spread the excellence of the two existing schools throughout the country.
  • To promote regional maths participation and skill development.
  • To nurture and inspire the next generation of mathematicians and scientists.
  • To enhance our national provision of maths education.

The press release also highlights the 2017 A level performance of students at the two existing schools – stating that 75% of Exeter’s cohort and 98% of KCL’s cohort achieved A*/A grades in A level maths.

KCL itself reports a 92% A* grade success rate in maths and 100% achieving a B grade or higher. It also secured an 88% success rate at A*/A in further maths and a 75% success rate at those grades in physics. Exeter has not released similar subject-specific results.

Nationally, 42.1% of entrants achieved A*/A grades in maths, as did 57.9% in further maths and 28.9% in physics, so these outcomes are impressive.

The 2017 Performance Tables also reveal that the average point score at KCL was 52.94 (an average grade of A+) compared with 44.33 at Exeter (average grade B+). At KCL 93.4% of students achieved AAB+, at least two in facilitating subjects, but at Exeter only 56.4% did so. The progress score at KCL was 0.97, but at Exeter it was 0.55.

Exeter claims that ‘100% of students have secured places at University or have work with training’. KCL says ‘100% of university applicants have secured places at Russell Group or Sutton Trust 30 universities.’ Both formulations suggest some students have chosen not to progress to higher education.

Additionally the press release highlights the performance of disadvantaged students in the following terms:

‘Ofsted has also singled out both schools for recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds who had not previously had the opportunity to fulfil their potential in mathematics.’

The Ofsted report on the Exeter School says there are no significant differences in the performance of low-income and other students, and the comparable report on the KCL School notes that ‘learners from disadvantaged backgrounds outperform their peers’.

As noted above, these results are suppressed for Exeter in the 2017 Performance tables, showing that five or fewer of its cohort were disadvantaged (in receipt of pupil premium in their final year of KS4). Their progress score is shown and, at 0.67, it is higher than the 0.55 recorded for all students.

At KCL disadvantaged students’ progress score was also slightly higher than for all students (0.99), but their average point score was 51.47 compared with 52.94 for all students.

The Ofsted report on the KCL School also notes:

‘Managers recognise that they need to focus more closely on the proportion of disadvantaged learners and those from a Black or minority ethnic heritage who progress to the most prestigious universities, including to Oxford and Cambridge.’

KCL states that 23% of its 2017 leavers had confirmed Oxbridge places, but does not reveal how many of these are from disadvantaged backgrounds.


The March 2018 guidance document

The guidance states at the outset that the Government is committed to establishing an unspecified number of new maths schools by the end of the current Parliament and:

‘…knowing it can take two to three years to open a new maths school from the point at which a business case is approved, we expect to be making decisions on business cases in 2018.’

This rather calls into question the size of the budget allocation for FY2019-20 and, to a lesser extent, FY2020-21. It seems unlikely that DfE will have permission to vire unspent funds into the budget available for subsequent years.


Purpose and target population

The guidance is aimed at both selective universities and potential partner organisations (including MATs). It seems that universities can apply without a partner, but that the reverse is not true.

The guidance is silent on the question of whether it is considered preferable for a university to have one or more partners.

It describes sponsoring a maths school as just one of many ways in which universities can support school improvement and raise learners’ attainment.

The target group of learners is initially described as 16-19 year-olds with ‘great aptitude’ for maths (rather than ‘ability’ or ‘(prior) attainment’).

The primary purpose of the new schools, as set out here, is to help address shortages of highly skilled graduates in sectors that depend on STEM skills, essential to competition in a global economy.

The schools will:

‘…prepare more of our most mathematically able pupils to succeed in mathematics-related disciplines at highly selective maths universities and pursue mathematically intensive careers.’

Note that the target group is now the ‘most mathematically able’. They are to be prepared exclusively for entry to maths-related degrees at a subset of universities and for careers that are exclusively ‘maths intensive’ (although this phrase is not defined).

Three secondary purposes are also declared:

‘Maths schools can also be centres of excellence in raising attainment, supporting and influencing the teaching of mathematics in their surrounding area, and are central to their associated universities’ widening participation commitments.’

This assumes that universities are focused on ‘widening participation’ rather than ‘fair access’ (despite the fact that the target institutions are ‘highly selective maths universities’).

At this stage there is no explicit commitment to a wider social mobility ambition, or to the closing of excellence gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers (but see the subsequent commentary on business cases below).

The schools are, however, expected to contribute to raising attainment and improving teacher quality in the ‘surrounding area’ (though the extent of this area is nowhere defined).

The annual additional funding of £350,000 is apparently now the only top-up available in addition to the ‘post-16 funding formula allocation’.

But the guide to free school revenue funding for 2017/18 (the most recent at the time of writing) suggests that a ‘post-opening grant’ is also available, comprising a per pupil element (£500 for each new student each year while the school builds up to full capacity) and a leadership element (£135K spread over two years, 80% in year 1 and 20% in year 2).

It is not entirely clear whether that will be offered to new maths free schools. The guidance only says that:

‘Trusts who move into the pre-opening phase will receive a project development grant to cover essential non-capital costs up to the point at which the school opens. It excludes site-related costs, which will be paid by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).’

The £350,000 of additional funding is to support three broad functions:

  • Developing an educational offer which has ‘a greater focus on wider mathematical problem solving’ so better preparing young people for ‘degree-level mathematics’.
  • Drawing the ‘top performing mathematics pupils’ (ie the highest attainers) into a ‘close-knit, nurturing learning community’, so implying that they will benefit from learning together rather than exclusively in their own school learning environments.
  • Via outreach ‘providing learning and tackling disadvantage/under-representation’ (in unspecified ways), so impacting on ‘the rest of the system’ and on maths teaching ‘both pre- and post-16’, so as to ‘complement the work of Maths Hubs as well as universities’ widening participation commitments’.

The first of these might be described as curricular enrichment for students on roll; the third as outreach for learners not (yet) attending these schools; while the second is potentially applicable to both existing and potential students. It is not clear what proportion is expected to be allocated towards outreach specifically.


Quality criteria

It is not until page 6 of the guidance that we are told what DfE considers a ‘highly selective maths university’:

‘We would like to work with the most selective mathematics universities where the actual average UCAS tariff for full-time first-degree entrants to mathematics is at least 350 points.’

Annex A of the guidance phrases this slightly differently:

‘Must have an actual average UCAS tariff for full-time first degree entrants to mathematical science subjects of at least 350 points, which is broadly equivalent to AAB.’

The latter indicates that this criterion is a non-negotiable (‘must have’), so we can expect it to be applied rigidly, unless perhaps demand is low and there is interest from borderline candidates (however the form for those expressing interest suggests something slightly different).

The measure of selectivity is therefore based on what existing entrants achieve, rather than the university’s standard offer.

According to the Complete University Guide Mathematics subject table for 2018, some 32 institutions meet this criterion, including KCL and Exeter. They are listed below, in order of tariff points.

Those marked with an asterisk are Russell Group universities, those with a plus sign are ‘Sutton Trust 30 universities’:























Central Lancashire



Royal Holloway+


Queen Mary*







The subset that is neither Russell Group nor Sutton Trust 30 includes Central Lancashire, previously rejected as a candidate. Northumbria and Plymouth are the only other former polys on this list.

Universities missing include Reading (only just below the cut-off), Keele, Kent, Aston, Essex, Hull, Brunel and Salford.

There are also quality criteria for certain potential partners.

‘Mainstream schools’ must:

  • Have a current overall Ofsted assessment of ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’, and should ‘generally be on a consistent or upward trend since the last inspection’.
  • Demonstrate achievement that is above local (unspecified) and national averages on the headline attainment and progress measures. So, for secondary schools that includes Attainment 8, Progress 8, percentage entering EBacc, percentage achieving EBacc at grade 5/C or above, and percentage achieving grade 5 or above in English and maths. For primary schools it includes: percentage of pupils meeting the overall ‘expected standard’, percentage of pupils meeting the overall ‘higher standard’, the average scaled score in each of reading and maths, and the average progress score in each of reading, writing and maths.

The criteria are identical for FE and sixth form colleges, though their headline accountability measures are of course different.

One assumes that both A level and academic qualifications measures will be included. It seems that the additional A level performance measures are not deemed relevant.

It is not necessary for MATs to meet MAT-specific performance measures, nor for all their member institutions to meet the criteria above, but there will be inquiry into ‘why any schools are weaker’ and whether the MAT has capacity to improve such schools while also opening a specialist maths school.

There is no explicit reference to quality criteria relating to the attainment and progress of disadvantaged learners, which is concerning.


Application process

The process laid out in the guidance is convoluted and onerous, but not dissimilar to that for all new free schools:

  • Initial enquiries may be directed to DfE (or presumably to NSN in the case of prospective partner institutions).
  • Submission of an expression of interest form for either universities or partner organisations. This checks whether the entity in question meets the relevant quality criteria (and, if not, asks for details of other indicators of quality that should be considered). It also enquires into motivation for setting up a school as well as the skills, experience and ‘time commitments’ of those developing the proposal.
  • DfE brokerage of links between interested partners and universities, although partnership ‘efforts’ are expected prior to submission of an EoI.
  • A meeting with DfE officials to discuss with universities/partner organisations their vision, and their capacity and capability to deliver it. It is anticipated that some may pull out at this stage. 
  • Development of a business case supported by iterative discussion with DfE. The Department anticipates that this process will last up to six months, and will check at that point that sufficient progress has been made. Applicants are free to withdraw at any point. 
  • Submission of the business case. This must set out ‘the key features and ethos of the school as well as its aims including aspirations for the achievement of its pupils’. It must also satisfy six ‘business case criteria’ which are outlined in the main text and also in Annex A:

Strong university engagement: A long-term commitment to the school extending beyond governance. There must be a letter of support from the vice-chancellor committing to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the academy trust, prior to signing of the funding agreement, to cover some or all of: curriculum support, project work and masterclasses; access to staff, postgraduate support and facilities; supporting and evaluating outreach activity via widening participation funding; providing careers advice; and providing links to industry and business networks.

Robust governance: There should be a governance plan demonstrating the university’s long-term commitment and accountability, with clear links to the university’s own governance at a senior level. There is a strong DfE preference for the university to be ‘a corporate member of the academy trust’.

Qualifications, curriculum and stretch: Maths and further maths A level must be compulsory for all students, with physics offered as an option and ‘part of the core offer’. Students must also undertake ‘undergraduate-level work’, this through both ‘extended projects and enrichment’.

Improving social mobility (particularly through outreach and partnership working): There should be significant outreach activity ‘over and above what you would normally expect of a school sixth form’. This must complement the work of Maths Hubs and be ‘integral to universities’ widening participation commitments’. Outreach is expected to include programmes for pupils in surrounding schools and colleges, CPD for teachers in partner and feeder schools and activity to attract potential recruits to the school. Maths schools will be expected to ‘improve mathematics teaching and outcomes in their region with a focus on’ supporting disadvantaged pupils and girls at all key stages but particularly key stages 3 and 4. The applicant must show how these two target groups will be supported by the school, including via outreach ‘to close the attainment gap in mathematics between disadvantaged children and everyone else at all key stages but with a particular focus on key stages 3 and 4’.

Capacity and capability: The people involved should be able to demonstrate: at least three years’ experience of organisational leadership, setting up new projects and successful delivery through partnership; experience as a headteacher in a successful secondary/post-16 institution; financial planning in such settings and experience of school/FE governance.

Admissions policy, identification and selection of pupils: Proposers must set out proposed admissions criteria ‘mindful that the clear aim is to attract the most mathematically able pupils with the potential to thrive in a maths school environment; and to support more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and girls into the school’. There should be information about proposed school capacity and transition towards full capacity, about recruitment and marketing strategies and analysis of the student market.

  • Submission of the Vice-Chancellor’s letter of support (see above).
  • Establishment of an academy trust. 
  • Agreement of a memorandum of understanding between the University and the maths school academy trust (see above).
  • Ministerial decision whether or not to proceed to pre-opening phase. Approval may be conditional, including on ‘the capital costs representing good value for money’. Approval letters will require adherence to criteria set out in business plans. There is no appeals process. 
  • Development of detailed plans with DfE support. Further conditions may be laid down during the pre-opening phase. A provisional opening date will be agreed only when a permanent site is confirmed (identified by ESFA/LocatED) and to reflect the time needed to prepare the premises. Opening may be delayed or cancelled if too little progress is made during the pre-opening stage.
  • Signing of the funding agreement only when the Secretary of State is satisfied that ‘the maths school will be able to deliver a good standard of education and will be viable from its first day of operation’.


What are the prospects for success?

There must be some reason to doubt whether the guarantee of additional annual funding of £350,000 (and some lack of clarity in the guidance document about the wider funding package available) plus the explicit encouragement of collaborative bids with partner organisations will be sufficient to overcome universities’ historical reticence about taking up this offer.

In its response to the selection Green Paper (December 2016), Universities UK pointed to unintended consequences from over-emphasis on university sponsorship of schools:

‘These would include damaging existing partnerships between schools and universities, focusing resources on fewer schools, skewing incentives for university involvement…

Lastly, this is a fairly evidence light area and it will be essential that further evaluation of existing forms of sponsorship is undertaken to determine which approaches work best within different contexts…’

In November 2017 UUK published guidance on Raising attainment through university-school partnerships which advocated a more flexible approach:

‘Raised aspirations, improved attainment, increased teacher ability and retention, and improved school success can all be achieved through a number of partnership and engagement mechanisms with schools.

Although sponsorship can be effective, it is not always the most appropriate option…

One way to view this would be to conceive of university-school engagement as a continuum in which universities use their different capacities and circumstances to contribute to the education system and pupil attainment. This could vary from outreach work with schools, to establishing a new school: all points on the continuum would have value that could be recognised through universities’ access agreements. Each point would reflect the needs of schools, the local context and institutional strengths and circumstances.’

This document also notes that the Evidence and Impact Exchange originally proposed by the Social Mobility Advisory Group (October 2016) should:

‘…provide a valuable resource for determining what works in terms of raising school-level attainment and support universities to develop ways of working with schools to achieve maximum impact.’

Although UUK, OFFA and HEFCE reportedly had been working on this project throughout 2017, it now appears that progress has been extremely limited, since the Office for Students has just committed £1.5m for this purpose between April 2018 and July 2019.

Incidentally, the OfS made no comment alongside the publication of the maths school package.

Given this wider context, one would expect few new bidders to come forward, although some – including perhaps UCLAN and the unknown five institutions which did so last time round – might submit exploratory expressions of interest, especially if they judge that this may help them in other ways.

It is unclear to what extent Baroness Wolf is still busy behind the scenes, acting as an unofficial national champion, or whether any political pressure is being applied.

As things stand, the Government seems unlikely to achieve the national network it seeks, and may well need to flex some of its expectations of universities even to get any more maths schools in place.


Factors that interested universities might consider

Universities considering whether or not to submit an expression of interest would be wise to reflect carefully on several potential issues, including whether:

  • This is an efficient model for their involvement in attainment-raising activity for school-age learners, or whether there are other partnership models that enable them to reach a significantly larger, much more geographically diverse population of learners with strengths across a range of different subject areas.
  • The extent to which this model supports progression (to their own institution rather than another) by learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from other under-represented groups is sufficient to justify inclusion of such a project in their access and participation plans, especially when – despite the additional emphasis on outreach – the principal beneficiaries are a small cadre of learners already aged 16+.
  • The most selective universities can successfully use this model to drive a significant increase in the number of suitably qualified applicants for maths-related degrees from disadvantaged backgrounds, or whether the nature of these schools is such that they will inevitably have to compromise their admissions to balance selectivity and participation, thus limiting their capacity to act as effective engines of social mobility.
  • Small specialist post-16 institutions of this kind are necessarily beneficial to learners, providing a better quality learning experience than larger more generalist 16-19 institutions, regardless whether they are equally selective. It is notable that, elsewhere in the 16-19 policy firmament, DfE advocates quality criteria for new academy sixth forms which demand:

‘Breadth, an expectation that a student should be able to choose from around 15 A levels across a range of subjects, either in the institution or through partnership’

  • The size of the proffered outreach premium is sufficient – even with matched funding from universities’ access and participation budgets – to implement a programme on a scale that could make a real difference, even on a regional basis and with the full involvement of the maths hubs.

There are also wider questions for the Government – and so for universities and prospective partner institutions – about the role of specialist maths schools in its wider strategy to strengthen the STEM ‘pipeline’.

The NAO’s recent report on Developing STEM skills for the economy (January 2018) mentions an array of existing and new initiatives associated with the ‘pipeline’, including T levels, institutes of technology, maths mastery, maths hubs, the level 3 maths support programme and the further maths support programme.

Specialist maths schools are completely ignored.

The Report notes that, as at November 2017, DfE had further work to do to co-ordinate effort across these and other initiatives – and to finalise detailed success measures.

The March 2018 guidance suggests it has made same progress, recognising for example the necessity for complementarity between maths school outreach and maths hub activity – but there is much more still to do.

Universities considering an expression of interest will likely want to have a much clearer understanding of this territory, so that they can position any proposal within the context of their wider contribution to work on the STEM pipeline, including at undergraduate and postgraduate level.


Shortcomings of the model

As I noted in my last review, the 16-19 specialist maths school model is fundamentally an inefficient means of supporting high-attaining maths students because much of the available funding is sunk in ‘bricks and mortar’ capital costs.

Even with enhanced outreach, a relatively large quantum of funding – both capital and recurrent – principally benefits a small cohort of specially selected students aged 16+ who live within travelling distance (unless expensive boarding facilities are also provided). The outreach premium helps only marginally to rectify this imbalance.

From a social mobility and fair access perspective there is also considerable deadweight, because a significant proportion of the intake is typically drawn from relatively advantaged backgrounds.

A sum equivalent to the total capital and annual recurrent costs of, say, a dozen specialist maths schools, targeted solely on strengthening the mathematical attainment of high attaining learners from genuinely disadvantaged backgrounds, aged 11+, wherever they are located in the country, would almost certainly have a substantially greater impact.

From a policy-making perspective it would be better to start with a specific target – for example to double within seven years the number of disadvantaged high attainers equipped to compete for a place on university maths degrees with the most demanding entry requirements.

One might then establish how best universities, MATs, maths hubs, schools, post-16 institutions and subject organisations could, through collaborative working, extend that opportunity to as many potential beneficiaries as possible.



April 2018


One thought on “Specialist maths schools, again

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