A year after it opened, a free school for maths geniuses is sending 11 teenagers to Oxbridge, putting it on a par with some of the most famous public schools in England.
The performance of pupils at King’s Maths School — which is modelled on the Soviet academies opened during the 1960s — is better than that at many private schools, which charge up to £30,000 a year.
The school has also bettered the performance of a rival free school, the London Academy of Excellence, known as the Eton of the East End, which sent eight children to Oxbridge last year. The 11 “mathletes” — one sixth of the year group — at King’s, in central London, nearly all have offers to study maths or science subjects at Oxford or Cambridge.
“They live and breathe maths,” said the head teacher, Dan Abramson . “Until they came here, a few might have felt like oddballs; for the first time everyone is a bit like them.”
In a tiny building tucked away near Waterloo station, the teenagers scribble maths equations on whiteboards and, at lunchtime, huddle over problems, helping each other solve the sums.
One of many remarkable aspects of the 140-pupil school is that a disproportionate number of its pupils are on the autistic spectrum. “One aim was to get gifted mathematicians who isolate themselves and may have autistic behaviour. Students who come to our school learn social collaboration. There is a common thread that in their previous school they may have felt out of place,” said Abramson.
The academy is the first maths free school to be backed by a university — King’s College London.
Nearly half those who have Oxbridge offers are girls. Kirsty Land, 17, who was previously at Hornsey School for Girls in north London, was the only girl in a UK team of six to compete at an international maths competition in Greece last year and has an offer to read maths at Balliol College, Oxford. Abramson said she had “a phenomenal mind” and would be “a world-beating mathematician”.
Kirsty said that if left to her own devices “I would not be in a room alone doing maths problems, I would be in a room talking about maths with other people”.
Shaams Dally, 18, from Shepperton, Surrey, who has a place to study computer science at Balliol, was home schooled, alongside his three sisters. He took only five GCSEs — “my parents didn’t want to pay the costs for sitting 11” — and his ability at maths was evident from a young age.
“The media image of schools is off-putting — it’s filled with bullies and scary exams. I was never keen to go but I really enjoy this school. Everyone is here because they love the subject they are studying. There is a real sense of togetherness. Maths is a subject a lot of people don’t think is cool, including my younger sisters — which is a bit upsetting for me.”
Libby Walker, 18, was a pupil at Hasmonean High School in Hendon, north London, before she came to King’s. She has an offer to study engineering at Trinity College, Cambridge. “I have always had a passion for maths,” she said. “I am happier here than at my old school. We all help each other with maths problems.”
Teenagers can dress as they like and boys are allowed to grow their hair long. The school opens at 8.30am and does not close until 7pm.
When the school opened, Alison Wolf, a professor at King’s College London and one of the academics behind the idea, described it as “very exciting”.
“This is a place where you can bring together incredibly bright kids. Maths is like music: by the time someone’s in their early teens it’s clear if they’re going to be really good at it.”
Only a handful of A-levels are taught at King’s — maths, further maths, computer science, physics and economics.
The first specialist maths college was opened in the former Soviet Union about 50 years ago by the mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov.
His aim — to ensure “the next generation of mathematicians are excellent” — was successful.