First Sweden was the country to emulate, when former education secretary Michael Gove was enthused by free schools. Then attention turned to Shanghai, and an initiative to improve the standard of maths in primary schools by bringing Chinese teachers to the UK.
Now, though, we are taking a leaf out of Russia’s book as ministers seek to improve the supply of top- quality mathematicians by setting up specialist maths colleges for 16- to 18-year-olds.
The first specialist maths college was opened in the former Soviet Union about 50 years ago by the distinguished mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov. His aim – to ensure “the next generation of mathematicians are excellent” – was successful, and the idea caught on. More specialist schools were set up in the Soviet Union, and the initiative was copied in other east European countries.
A key figure in the establishment of specialist maths institutions in the UK was Baroness (Alison) Wolf, a professor at King’s College London. She knew about Russian maths skills because of her work in universities, where maths departments often attract a fair few Russian academics.
Initially, the idea in the UK was for universities to set up a nationwide network of specialist maths schools. However, only King’s College London and Exeter have taken the plunge.
Dan Abramson, head of the King’s College London Mathematics School in south London, suspects that “some [universities] might be waiting for our exam results to see if we are successful”. The portents are good – 97 per cent of students at the King’s College school achieved an A grade in AS-level maths last summer and 11 of the 65 students in one year group have been offered places at Oxford and Cambridge, the highest percentage of Oxbridge offers of any institution in the country. The first intake will sit their A-levels this summer.
The school is oversubscribed, with more than three students applying for every place, and has no catchment area as such. “Anybody who can get here can apply,” said Mr Abramson. But it works with local schools in Lambeth, south London, on the site of a former public wash-house and training centre for medical students, to ensure that the most disadvantaged students who show a talent for maths can gain access. An enrichment programme which takes in about 100 students from around 50 schools and offers two hours of training once a fortnight, plus a place at a maths summer school.
“Our aim is twofold,” said Mr Abramson. “We want to encourage the brightest and best, and widen participation in maths. It’s not just to be an alternative to independent schools. We look at postcodes, we look at whether a student is eligible for free school meals, the parental history of higher education.”
Students at the school say one of the big attractions is the ability to discuss maths with others who are keen on the subject. In their previous schools, there may have been just one or two pupils on the same wavelength.
Andrea Cozza, 18, from Camden Town, north-west London, said: “I really wanted to do medicine at my last school, but I learnt that I actually didn’t like the subject. What I really wanted to do was maths.
“It’s good here to be studying alongside people who are just as keen on the subject.”
The school’s main curriculum areas are maths, science, engineering and economics, but students can also do an extended project (essay) on a in any field that they are passionate about. “I’m doing an essay on Greek tragedy,” she said.
Libby Walker, also 18, said: “Everybody is doing the same subjects, and that’s really good because we can all help each other. There are 10 different people to help you out with any problem you might have.
“It’s also nice being with people who are maths-y,” she said. “That can lead to developing a deeper understanding of the subject.”
The school, which opened in September 2014, has been set up as a free school – and 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.”