Specialist maths schools – some facts

The news reports that the Government will try to promote more ‘specialist maths schools’ similar to the King’s College and Exeter schools.

The idea for these schools came when I read about Perelman, the Russian mathematician who in 2003 suddenly posted on arXiv a solution to the Poincaré Conjecture, one of the most important open problems in mathematics. Perelman went to one of the famous Russian specialist maths schools that were set up by one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th Century, Kolmogorov.

I thought – a) given the fall in standards in maths and physics because of the corruption of the curriculum and exams started by the Tories and continued by Blair, b) the way in which proper teaching of advanced maths and physics is increasingly limited to a tiny number of schools many of which are private, and c) the huge gains for our civilisation from the proper education of the unusual small fraction of children who are very gifted in maths and physics, why not try to set up something similar.

Gove’s team therefore pushed the idea through the DfE. Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State, said, ‘I have long been the advocate of the heretical view that, whatever political scientists might say, policy in this country is made, as often as not, by the necessity of finding something to say for an important figure committed to speak without a prearranged subject.’ This is quite true (it also explains a lot about how Monnet created the ECSC and EEC). Many things that the Gove team did relied on this. We prepared the maths school idea and waited our chance. Sure enough, the word came through from Downing Street – ‘the Chancellor needs an announcement for the Budget, something on science’. We gave them this, he announced it, and bureaucratic resistance was largely broken.

If interested in some details, then look at pages 75ff of my 2013 essay for useful links. Other countries have successfully pursued similar ideas, including France for a couple of centuries and Singapore recently.

One of the interesting aspects of trying to get them going was the way in which a) the official ‘education world’ loathed not just the idea but also the idea about the idea – they hated thinking about ‘very high ability’ and specialist teaching; b) 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 few points…

1) Kolmogorov-type schools are a particular thing. They undoubtedly work. But they are aimed at a small fraction of the population. Given what the products of these schools go on to contribute to human civilisation they are extraordinarily cheap. They are also often a refuge for children who have a terrible time in normal schools. If they were as different to normal kids in a negative sense as they are in a positive sense then there would be no argument about whether they have ‘special needs’.

2) Don’t believe the rubbish in things like Gladwell’s book about maths and IQ. There is now very good data on this particularly in the form of the unprecedented SMPY multi-decade study. Even a short crude test at 11-13 gives very good predictions of who is likely to be very good at maths/physics. Further there is a strong correlation between performance at the top 1% / 1:1,000 / 1:10,000 level and many outcomes in later life such as getting a doctorate, a patent, writing a paper in Science and Nature, high income, health etc. The education world has been ~100% committed to rejecting the science of this subject though this resistance is cracking.

This chart shows the SMPY results (maths ability at 13) for the top 1% of maths ability broken down into quartiles 1-4: the top quartile of the top 1% clearly outperforms viz tenure, publication and patent rates.  


3) The arguments for Kolmogorov schools do not translate to arguments for selection in general – ie. they are specific to the subject. It is the structure of maths and the nature of the brain that allows very young people to make rapid progress. These features are not there for English, history and so on. I am not wading into the grammar school argument on either side – I am just pointing out a fact that the arguments for such maths schools are clear but should not be confused with the wider arguments over selection that involve complicated trade-offs. People on both sides of the grammar debate should, if rational, be able to support this policy.

4) These schools are not ‘maths hot houses’. Kolmogorov took the children to see  Shakespeare plays, music and so on. It is important to note that teaching English and other subjects is normal – other than you are obviously dealing with unusually bright children. If these children are not in specialist schools, then the solution is a) specialist maths teaching (including help from university-level mathematicians) and b) keeping other aspects of their education normal. Arguably the greatest mathematician in the world, Terry Tao, had wise parents and enjoyed this combination. So it is of course possible to educate such children without specialist schools but the risks are higher that either parents or teachers cock it up.

5) Extended wisely across Britain they could have big benefits not just for those children and elite universities but they could also play an important role in raising standards generally in their area by being a focus for high quality empirical training. One of the worst aspects of the education world is the combination of low quality training and resistance to experiments. This has improved since the Gove reforms but the world of education research continues to be dominated by what Feynman called ‘cargo cult science’.

6) We also worked with a physicist at Cambridge, Professor Mark Warner, to set up a project to improve the quality of 6th form physics. This project has been a great success thanks to his extraordinary efforts and the enthusiasm of young Cambridge physicists. Thousands of questions have been answered on their online platform from many schools. This project gives kids the chance to learn proper problem solving – that is the core skill that the corruption of the exam system has devalued and increasingly pushed into a ghetto of of private education. Needless to say the education world also was hostile to this project. Anything that suggests that we can do much much better is generally hated by all elements of the bureaucracy, including even elements such as the Institute of Physics that supposedly exist to support exactly this. A handful of officials helped us push through projects like this and of course most of them have since left Whitehall in disgust, thus does the system protect itself against improvement while promoting the worst people.

7) This idea connects to a broader idea. Kids anywhere in the state system should be able to apply some form of voucher to buy high quality advanced teaching from outside their school for a wide range of serious subjects from music to physics.

8) One of the few projects that the Gove team tried and failed to get going was to break the grip of GCSEs on state schools (Cameron sided with Clegg and although we cheated a huge amount through the system we hit a wall on this project). It is extremely wasteful for the system and boring for many children for them to be focused on existing exams that do not develop serious skills. Maths already has the STEP paper. There should be equivalents in other subjects at age 16. There is nothing that the bureaucracy will fight harder than this and it will probably only happen if excellent private schools decide to do it themselves and political pressure then forces the Government to allow state schools to do them.

Any journalists who want to speak to people about this should try to speak to Dan Abramson (the head of the King’s school), Alison Wolf, or Alexander Borovik (a mathematician at Manchester University who attended one of these schools in Russia).

It is hopeful that No10 is backing this idea but of course they will face determined resistance. It will only happen if at least one special adviser in the DfE makes it a priority and has the support of No10 so officials know they might as well fight about other things…

This is the most interesting comment probably ever left on this blog and it is much more interesting than the blog itself so I have copied it below. It is made by Borovik, mentioned above, who attended one of these schools in Russia and knows many who attended similar…

‘There is one more aspect of (high level) selective specialist mathematics education that is unknown outside the professional community of mathematicians.

I am not an expert on “gifted and talented” education. On the other hand, I spent my life surrounded by people who got exclusive academically selective education in mathematics and physics, whether it was in the Lavrentiev School in Siberia, or Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, or Fazekas in Budapest, or Galatasaray Lisesi (aka Lycée de Galatasaray) in Istanbul — the list can be continued.

The schools have nothing in common, with the exception of being unique, each one in its own way.

I had research collaborators and co-authors from each of the schools that Ilisted above. Why was it so easy for us to find a common language?

Well, the explanation can be found in the words of Stanislas Dehaene, the leading researcher of neurophysiology of mathematical thinking:

“We have to do mathematics using the brain which evolved 30 000 years ago for survival in the African savanna.”

In humans, the speed of totally controlled mental operations is at most 16 bits per second. Standard school maths education trains children to work at that speed.

The visual processing module in the brain crunches 10,000,000,000 bits per second.

I offer a simple thought experiment to the readers who have some knowledge of school level geometry.

Imagine that you are given a triangle; mentally rotate it about the longest side. What is the resulting solid of revolution? Describe it. And then try to reflect: where the answer came from?

The best kept secret of mathematics: it is done by subconsciousness.

Mathematics is a language for communication with subconsciousness.

There are four conversants in a conversation between two mathematicians: two people and two their “inner”, “intuitive” brains.

When mathematicians talk about mathematics face-to-face, they
* frequently use language which is very fluid and informal;
* improvised on the spot;
* includes pauses (for a lay observer—very strange and awkwardly timed) for absorbtion of thought;
* has almost nothing in common with standardised mathematics “in print”.

Mathematician is trying to convey a message from his “intuitive brain” directly to his colleagues’ “intuitive brain”.

Alumni of high level specialist mathematics schools are “birds of feather” because they have been initiated into this mode of communication at the most susceptible age, as teenagers, at the peak of intensity of their socialisation / shaping group identity stream of self-actualisation.

In that aspect, mathematics is not much different from arts. Part of the skills that children get in music schools, acting schools, dancing school, and art schools is the ability to talk about music, acting, dancing, art with intuitive, subconscious parts of their minds — and with their peers, in a secret language which is not recognised (and perhaps not even registered) by uninitiated.

However, specialist mathematics schools form a continuous spectrum from just ordinary, with standard syllabus, but good schools with good maths teachers to the likes of Louis-le-Grand and Fazekas. My comments apply mostly to the top end of the spectrum. I have a feeling that the Green Paper is less ambitious and does not call for setting up mathematics boarding schools using Chetham’s School of Music as a model. However, middle tier maths school could also be very useful — if they are set up with realistic expectations, properly supported, and have strong connections with universities.’

A Borovik