In the past, young mathematicians were able to excel by attending grammar schools and being stretched via O and A levels. This 1960s system was far from perfect, but it created large numbers of talented STEM candidates. The current system fails in this respect, because the maths GCSE does not challenge and stretch the most able students. The consequences of this were pointed out by Alan Smithers & Pamela Robinson in their report Educating the Highly Able:
“When we look at the highest levels of attainment (levels 5 and 6), the performance of England is extremely worrying. In maths just 1.7% of 15-year-olds attained the very highest PISA level (level 6), compared with an OECD average of 3.1%.”
Part of the reason for the UK’s failure to create large numbers of excellent teenage mathematicians is that a typical top set contains the top 25% of students, so the ability range is broad, from very strong down to only one step better than average. Teachers will naturally focus on the lower half of the top set as these students will need more support, which means that the best students can be neglected.
In order to compensate for this problem, our project is designed to support the brightest and most motivated mathematics students in state schools by giving them the opportunity to excel and reach their potential over the course of five years as part of a top-top set.
A top-top set typically contains only the top 7% to 10% of students, so the ability range is much narrower, which in turn means that these teachers can focus on helping these able and ambitious students to achieve their potential.
In large schools that operate two bands for timetabling, it is necessary for the all top-top set students to be in the same band, or (better still) for maths to be timetabled simultaneously across both bands.
Success will not mean achieving the top grade at GCSE, but rather the goal is for students to go beyond this and achieve a broader and deeper knowledge of mathematics, combined with a richer perspective and appreciation of the subject, reinforced with a willingness to take on difficult problems with confidence. The project starts with Year 7 students, and ultimately it will go beyond GCSE to Sixth Form.
The plan is that students will be ready for a supercharged A level experience; the goal is to aim beyond A* in Further Maths at A level. Although the focus of this programme is mathematics, it should also have a major impact on students who wish to pursue all STEM degrees at the top universities.
From a practical point of view, the project has been designed so that it should be highly cost effective and require minimal changes to standard routines:
- it DOES takes place within existing schools, within the school day.
- it DOES make use of existing resources and existing maths teachers.
- it DOES NOT rely on summer schools, guest speakers, special trips or masterclasses.
The project was started by Simon Singh, the author of several bestselling books, including Fermat’s Last Theorem. The funding for the pilot phase has been provided by Good Thinking, a charity founded by Simon to promote good science and challenge pseudo-science.
Simon has a particular interest in cost-effective and sustainable education projects. His previous projects have demonstrated his ability to create models that succeed without subsidies. His Enigma Project has run over 1,000 school workshops with a genuine Enigma machine and the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme sends 1,000 undergraduates into schools each year – both projects have become self-sustaining.
In order to grow, the Top-Top Set project will require funding, but pound for pound it could be the best way to nationally create large numbers of strong STEM undergraduates.
You can see our preliminary results, and you can find out how to run the project at your school. The project was covered in the Times Educational Supplement – it is a good article, but it tended to call our students prodigies.
Finally, teachers and parents should take a look at Parallel, a site developed to support Top-Top Set students, but available for free for anyone else to use.