Alison Wolf

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

King’s Professor Baroness Alison Wolf is a British economist and founding Chair of King’s College London Mathematics School. In this article, adapted from a piece published in The Spectator in September 2015, she explains how the school is already producing impressive results.

King’s College London Mathematics School opened its doors to pupils on September 1 2014. Today, less than two years later, it is one of the ten best state schools in the country for AS level results – and is set to be one of the very best in the country for Oxbridge and Russell Group university entry as well. It is a monument to the vision of the College, the dedication of the head and staff, and the fantastic students we’ve recruited. It also has major lessons for English education: not just schools, but universities as well.

Our school is a ‘free school’, paid for by the government, sponsored and nurtured by King’s , that teaches talented committed 16-18 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 can expect in 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 mathematics potential. All of us - the academics who first proposed the school, the Council Members who supported it, and the many staff, administrative and academic, who brought it into being - believed that the country has a lot of this. And we have hard evidence that we were right.

Last August we woke up to AS level results that make the school one of the ten best state schools in the country. 97% of our students got an A in Mathematics. 90% 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.

In January, we could report on university offers. 17% of our students, and more than a fifth of the girls, received offers from Oxford or Cambridge. If they make their grades – and we are pretty confident they will – we would be in the top 5 state schools in the country for the proportion entering Oxbridge. Across the board, they are heading for Russell Group institutions – including a good number holding offers from King’s itself. In the meantime, they’re winning medals and competitions, learning foreign languages as well as robotics, and founding almost as many societies as there are pupils in the school.

Many teenagers thrive on academic study. The surnames on our roll are modern London in microcosm: we’re not all Anglo-Saxon, nor all-Asian, and not even largely male. 43% of our first cohort, the ones now heading into A level, are girls. This is way above the national average for Further Maths, let alone for Physics. .

These are seriously motivated students. Kim, for example, from a single-parent family, has a 1.5 hour commute each way, plus a job to help the family finances. She got AAA in maths, further maths and physics last summer. For some, like Glen, home is chaotic, and the school makes studying possible. From his GCSE grades you’d have predicted 2 D’s for his maths AS levels, not the two A’s he achieved. Glen 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? First of all, great teaching delivers. Of course schools can’t wipe out family influence. But I’ve never met a student who thought all teachers were equal, or a teacher who truly didn't care who taught her or his own children.

Our school hired teachers who are excellent mathematicians. They are also, of necessity, mostly young, because that is what we can afford. Running a state school, with today’s sixth form funding levels, is a combination of penny-pinching, improvisation and slog. Our teachers have nonetheless become truly effective very fast, through the school’s teaching culture, created by a superb head. They discuss, they analyse, they observe each other, they track their success in detail through the progress students make. In the words of Amin, one of the current Year 13,

The teachers are amazing! If you need help you can always go to them. They seem to know and learn a lesson properly, so it comes from their head rather than a Powerpoint.

Our full-time pupils are, of course, the top priority. But the school also runs an outreach programme, bringing stretching, excellent mathematics education to younger pupils in years 10 & 11, and targeted at low-income areas. Many of the pupils travel very long distances, week after week, to attend after-school sessions: further evidence of the potential for our country to produce far more excellent mathematicians, engineers and physicists than we do today.

Outreach has always been part of the College’s vision for the school, and it supports it as an intrinsic part of our official ‘Widening Participation’ programme. Contributions from King’s underpin our after-school programme, and will be followed, shortly, by spring and summer schools. Far more universities, in my view, should be following our example.

British families no longer need to be told that university is a good idea for their children. We know, from the mothers of new-borns, that there is universal agreement on this. What blocks social mobility is the uneven quality of schooling that our children receive. Universities could, in my view, do far more to bring really high quality teaching to motivated and talented teenagers who are still in school. Helping to do this, through King’s Maths School, has been one of the high points of my career.