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Specialist maths schools show universities can work on raising school attainment – under the right conditions

Gavin Brown and Damian Haigh suggest that generalised support for boosting school attainment may be less effective than specialised partnerships focused on areas of particular need
This article is more than 2 years old

Gavin Brown is pro vice chancellor for education at the University of Liverpool

Damian Haigh is head teacher at University of Liverpool Maths School

Universities working with schools is not a new idea. Pathways, widening participation, foundation years, mentoring, sponsorship, and dozens of other initiatives, have been bread and butter for universities up and down the country.

The refresh of access and participation plans (APP) will draw this work into sharper relief but it is also an opportunity to reflect on what works.

Back in 2018 then schools minister Nick Gibb launched a competition for universities to open specialist 16-19 maths schools. It was hoped these schools would replicate work taking place at Kings College London and Exeter Mathematics Schools (opened in 2014) who were successfully recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds and supporting them to achieve exceptional results in maths.

The launch of these schools was not always met with unqualified optimism. Commentators at the time raised concerns that they would be difficult to run, unpopular, or displace gifted students from less well funded schools. Our experience with the University of Liverpool Maths School suggests they should form a central part of the OfS’ new approach to school attainment.

The case of the specialist school

The University of Liverpool Maths School opened for students in September 2020. The curriculum consists of A level maths, further maths, physics and computer science and two additional programmes which are not formally assessed but support the pastoral and academic needs of this specific group of pupils.

The school admitted 30 students in year one and a further 37 in year two. There will be some modest number growth in coming years but the school will intentionally remain small (up to a maximum of 80 per year). Already, most Year 13 students have applied for university, and we anticipate the vast majority will progress into higher education. A small number will pursue degree apprenticeships.

Relevant to the APP refresh, a core purpose of the school is to improve STEM education provision more generally and address gender and ethnicity gaps in progression to the study of higher-level mathematics. The school provides free online outreach with priority given to students in state funded schools in the Liverpool city region.

In the 2020-21 academic year the school provided over 5,000 hours of students learning to 645 students from key stages three through to five. In terms of the diversity of its own intake staff dedicate significant time visiting schools in the region to contribute to staff and curriculum development and to recruit an ever more representative group of students.

It is clear from the time we’ve spent working together that school and university partnerships can be impactful when they are carefully constructed. The university is not an expert in teaching A levels but we nevertheless play a central role in supporting the governance of the school, brokering relationships with partners, providing facilities, supporting widening participation work, and giving advice to the leadership team.

Equally, the work of the maths school provides the university with insight it could not otherwise attain. It brings the university closer to students who may apply here or elsewhere, it provides opportunity for sharing advice and practice on changing qualifications, and it exposes University of Liverpool staff to colleagues with different and complementary expertise.

In total, the central lesson is that these relationships can be effective where partners are supported to do the work they are best at. Equally, there is still more to be done in stimulating academic collaborations between teachers and university academics.

Lessons for regulation

In looking at OfS’ new approach to access and participation there are places where partnerships like ours could have an even greater impact. The university’s Student Success Framework places a premium on student transition into higher education. If contextualised transitions are to be impactful these partnerships could play a greater role in skills development, developing pedagogy to accommodate a broader range of qualifications, and co-designing summer schools to catch up lost learning out of Covid-19.

Perhaps most importantly it’s also important to consider what is working now. In a period of some instability with new appointments, strategies, and APP refreshes, successful partnerships like this can provide stability in growing our shared ambitions around access and participation. This may be a question of developing new partnerships, growing existing ones, or applying the lessons learned here elsewhere.

Fundamentally, this depends on identifying complementary strengths of the two sectors, and putting in place the structures which allow them to coalesce around a shared access agenda.

One response to “Specialist maths schools show universities can work on raising school attainment – under the right conditions

  1. Were gifted students displaced from less well funded schools? How do the local sixth forms view the new landscape?

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