Kerry Burnham from Exeter Mathematics School

Opened in September 2014, Exeter Mathematics School (EMS) has quickly made its mark in STEMM education. As one of two state funded mathematics schools in the country (the other one is Kings College London Maths School), in March 2017 Education Secretary, Justine Greening MP, proclaimed that ”EMS should lead the way for cities across the country”. In a piece for The Telegraph, she went on to describe it as “pioneering” and as “a school that enables talented maths A level students to focus and excel in a subject they love. It was inspiring to see.”  The School had its first Ofsted inspection in January 2017 and achieved the Outstanding rating across all the categories. 

For the students of EMS, the results have been excellent. With the first cohort going on to achieve almost half a grade higher per subject than expected based on achievement in GCSEs, 94% have secured University places with 18% of those at Oxbridge. EMS’s progress score places it  in the top 75 of all schools, both state and private, and in the top three across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. Based on these measures, EMS is the highest performing state school in the region.

Insight talks to headteacher, Kerry Burnham, about the achievements of EMS

Kerry was employed twelve months prior to EMS opening and had a hand in practically every aspect of launching – from picking the paint for the walls, to recruiting each member of staff, and developing the curriculum, policies, and procedures. The result? The listed City centre property on the edge of Rougemount Gardens has been transformed into a buzzing, creative, environment for 120 gifted students. 

Aged between 16 and 19, students come from Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, and Somerset to attend the School, with around a third boarding in the city during the week. Students can take maths and physics A-levels at EMS, and can then attend other courses at partner establishment Exeter College.  A tour with Kerry around the building shows us that the lessons are relaxed and informal, and the building itself bright and cheery, with facilities for lessons, private study, research, and relaxation. Throughout the School, posters, crammed with detail, line the walls.

The posters are the result of a stand-out scheme, which Kerry believes builds the students’ confidence and communication skills particularly. On arriving at EMS, all students are set an academic challenge by a University professor. In their first term, the students work in groups to research and tackle that challenge – by Christmas they must be ready to present their solutions to an audience of 400 peers, parents, and tutors on stage at the University of Exeter’s auditorium. In the student’s second term, EMS partners with businesses to set the students real-life challenges. Recent industry partners include the Hydrographic Office, Dyson, ATASS sports, the Met Office and Kinetic. As part of this challenge the students must visit the business and at the end of the term present their reports and pitch their solutions back to the business.

In the second-year students propose their own individual research projects, which are peer reviewed, and finally present their findings in a conference.     Recent examples include ‘Automated Translation of Poetry’, ‘Meteor Detection’, ‘Mathematics of Origami’, ‘Quantum Algorithms’, and ‘Face Recognition on Social Network Sites’.

Kerry said: “For students, the projects give them the chance to fail and to learn – working on these real-life challenges builds the students’ resilience. 

Kerry continued: “I hope the partnerships with industry could become a model for engagement between industry and schools, and ultimately help schools equip students for both University and the workplace.”

What about encouraging more students into STEMM subjects from school age? EMS works across the South West to engage younger pupils in maths with various outreach programmes taking place from primary age up to a GCSE enhancement course.   For example, students from across the region are able to join the school’s Maths Student Community – a programme that enables able students to meet together on a regular basis, attending workshops at EMS, and receiving online support designed to enrich their experience of mathematics and develop their problem solving.

Girls at EMS currently make up one third of the student numbers; there is an ambition to reach gender parity. Kerry said: “We have submitted a funding bid for research which will help us to understand how to attract more female students into mathematics subjects. It is my belief that making children more aware of the careers opportunities open to them via maths will influence this,as would helping children understand that maths is creative.  It is about perseverance and problem solving.”

With Justine Greening suggesting the Exeter Maths School model as a blue print for maths education in the future, what is next for EMS?  The School is working with other state schools across the region to build a network for teachers and to provide specialist subject training for teachers, who have found themselves teaching maths, when it is not their specialism. Kerry said: ‘It is through the teachers we can have the most impact, and reach the most students.”

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