26 de janeiro de 2017

Why a top university runs a London state school on Soviet lines

The Economist

A visit to one of the best schools in the country

FOR a glimpse of the Soviet Union’s influence on English education, head to a sixth-form college in Lambeth, a 20-minute stroll from Parliament. There, in a former 1930s bath-house sunk low amid housing estates, sits King’s College London Mathematics School (KCLMS). Inside, pupils can spend their free time solving mathematical problems on whiteboards mounted in pods. On a recent visit the common room was quiet; the only pupils huddled in a corner playing Salem, “a strategic card game of deception”. Desks were set up for chess. The mood was more low-cost Oxbridge college than inner-London state school.
That is by design. The school is modelled on the Kolmogorov Physics and Mathematics School in Moscow, which from the mid-1960s took Russia’s smartest 15-year-olds and exposed them to the best maths teaching in the country. Michael Gove, Britain’s education secretary from 2010 to 2014, imported the idea, pushing universities to start specialist maths colleges. The aim was to make it possible for any child to have an “Eton-level education” in maths or physics, recalls Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Mr Gove.
In the end just two universities opened colleges. KCLMS, founded by King’s College London, and Exeter Mathematics School, sponsored by Exeter University, opened in 2014. But on January 23rd the government announced that it wanted more. It hopes to open new maths schools across the country as part of its “industrial strategy”. Some universities are rumoured to be reconsidering their initial reluctance to get involved.
The question of how to educate the brightest children is a touchy subject in Britain. Theresa May, the prime minister, has previously said that she wants to end a ban on building new grammar schools, which select pupils on academic grounds at age 11. Wildly popular with some, grammar schools are fiercely opposed by others. Even the education secretary, Justine Greening, is said to be privately sceptical about the prime minister’s plan to bring them back.
KCLMS is hyper-selective: pupils normally need an A* grade in maths at GCSE, the exams taken aged 16. Yet colleges like it could prove to be less divisive than grammars. For one thing, selection at 16 is already common, and reckoned to be more reliable than testing children aged 11. KCLMS does a better job than most grammars of recruiting poor pupils. Its admissions process gives preference to those from bad schools, poor areas or families with no experience of higher education.
As a result, 14% of its pupils have qualified for free school meals, a measure of poverty; by contrast, fewer than 3% of grammar school pupils do. Nearly half are from ethnic minorities. And whereas educationalists worry that pupils who fail to win a place at a grammar school fall behind partly because of the taint of having flunked the admissions test, not getting into a specialist sixth-form college hardly carries the same stigma. Outfits like KCLMS are therefore billed by some as a way to lift the brightest children without pushing down the rest.
Those who get in flourish. Fourteen of KCLMS’s 61 final-year pupils have been offered a place to study at Oxford or Cambridge next year. In 2016 all pupils gained an A or A* grade in their maths A-level exam, taken at 18. Pupils do on average 0.7 grades better per subject than peers with similar GCSE results. On this basis it is in the top 0.5% of schools in the country.
Lessons are fast-paced, collaborative and fun. The goal is to develop ideas together through “Socratic questioning”, says Dan Abramson, the school’s head. Teachers must have an excellent grasp of their subject as lessons can go far beyond the syllabus, he says. The small staff spends a lot of time crunching data and observing lessons to work out how to improve. The curriculum is planned with academics at King’s College so that pupils are ready for university. PhD students mentor first-year pupils. An emeritus professor of maths at King’s provides extension classes for the very brightest.
But the school’s success is also partly down to its culture. Since all pupils study the same subjects (maths, further maths, physics and either economics or computer science) they can help one another with problems. Outside speakers from places like GCHQ, Britain’s signal-intelligence agency, and Google DeepMind, an artificial-intelligence company, help link academic study to the outside world. A KCL professor runs the school robotics club; an enterprising pupil runs the Japanese one.
Hard work plays a part, too. “You just can never finish,” laughs Charles Kanda, a pupil at KCLMS. “There’s always another problem sheet.”

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Russian lessons"

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