The county is set to become the fourth part of the country in which a dedicated maths sixth form will be established, as part of a joint venture between Lancaster University and Preston’s Cardinal Newman College.
The £8m facility is set to be based on the site of the former Job Centre on London Road, with that building – known as Barry House – to be demolished and replaced with a new state-of-the-art college for students whose only problem with problems is that they cannot get enough of them.
And if the idea of a group of teenagers so fascinated with maths that they spend their days setting each other challenges sounds like the fanciful backdrop to an American high school movie, then Cardinal Newman principal Nick Burnham says that such “maths communities” are already thriving at the three other specialist colleges that are up and running elsewhere.
“The school will appeal to a certain type of mathematician who lives and breathes maths and seeks out other mathematicians so that they can spend their day just talking about the subject.
“These will be classes of very bright students. We have them with us now at Cardinal Newman, but they’re not all in one class, they are spread around the school.
“It will be quite a challenge for the teachers as well – but really rewarding. These students will appreciate what you know and want to understand everything about [the subject],” Mr. Burnham explains.
Professor Alex Belton, who leads Lancaster University’s maths and statistics department, says that it is not just what pupils will be learning that will mark out the college as somewhere different – but how.
“I’ve visited some of the existing maths schools and they have self-supporting groups of students who work really well together, but are also very independent learners and self-driven. In that respect, it’s much more like university-level study.
“What we’re planning for the school in Preston will give the students a real head start in Maths at university and also in university learning generally,” says Professor Belton, adding that institutions like Lancaster would welcome their first-year students having “the grounding” in maths that the specialist college will provide.
Pupils at the school – which is expected to open in September 2022 – will study four A-Levels: maths, further maths and related options such as physics and computer science.
Nick Burnham says that the premise of maths schools should be one of fostering ability – and ensuring that those with potential have the opportunity to fulfil it, no matter what their background.
“I don’t see it as an achievement thing, because these individuals are so good at maths, most of them will get A* or A grades anyway.
“For me, it’s more about widening participation and encouraging some really bright students to take maths, particularly in areas of deprivation – and there are barriers there at the moment.
“So there will be a big outreach programme providing enrichment activities from primary school age upwards.
“If you are going to produce incredible mathematicians who make a massive contribution to society at the same time, you have to make sure that you are identifying that talent in the first place.”
Professor Belton says that the school will also seek to encourage girls to continue studying maths beyond GCSE.
“In the jargon, it’s called ‘the leaky pipeline’ – there is a drop-off aged 16 and you see fewer girls than boys taking further maths at A-Level.
“Often they are outstanding, but it’s about giving them a sense of that and also some role models. Some of the strongest students we’ve got at Lancaster are girls.”
The school in Preston will draw pupils from across Lancashire and the wider North West – offering up to 130 places a year. Nick Burnham says that it will take few pupils away from existing schools as a result. Cardinal Newman alone has around 1,000 maths students.
Lancaster University and Cardinal Newman have established the Rigby Education Trust to run the new facility.. The government has encouraged universities to create a network of what will eventually be around 10 maths schools in order to meet demand for maths skills from employers.
Professor Belton says that future students of Lancashire’s maths school will be primed to take advantage of opportunities in growth areas such as data science, where their capability will be in demand from corporate giants and governments alike.
Nick Burnham has high hopes that they will ultimately reach the “upper echelons of the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] industries”.
“It’d be great to see maths school students end up doing things that change Britain.
“You’d really want them to be pioneering and changing British industry – and lives – for the good.”
HAVE YOUR SAY
A public consultation into the plans has been running since last month and closes on 29th March. Views can be submitted here.
A separate planning application for the new building will be decided by Preston City Council at a later date.
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