Free schools at 10: Exeter Mathematics School uncut

To celebrate 10 years since the first free schools opened their doors, NSN published Free schools at 10: A decade of success

The collection of interviews featured founders/leaders of free schools of all type and phase from across the country, providing a candid insight into the process of establishing and running a free school.

The interview that follows is the original, uncut version with Kerry Burnham, Headteacher at Exeter Mathematics School.   

What first inspired you to get involved with the free schools programme?

The University of Exeter and Exeter College were inspired with the idea, I was curious to find out more, and as I found out more I became increasingly excited. I had seen before how many students with a passion for maths had become quite isolated in their love for the subject and sometimes when they come together and study further maths at A Level they become kindred spirits collectively and start to blossom – I could see the power of doing that with more students in a specialist school. This seemed to be something that captured and harnesses this unique dynamic to help young people flourish. 

What was your original vision for Exeter Maths, and how has it been realised over time?

As mentioned Exeter College and the University had a vision that sixth form and students would engage and benefit from links so that the University staff would teach at the school, in the second year of A level, and students could move dynamically over to the college, but other than that, there wasn’t much which was fixed. The details of how it has been running and function was always up in the air from the beginning – I had close contact with the university and college staff to help develop an education brief.

The school, university and college’s perspective that we wanted to create a school for very able and enthusiastic mathematicians was always aligned. However, as we got started the language and presentation of the school’s vision often appeared elitist, and people mistook the school as being a private institution, so we’ve really had to focus on widening participation and focus on outreach so that we can really make a difference by reaching out to students who were hard find, as time has gone on.

Is your curriculum design the same now as it was when you first opened?

Although we’re credited for our innovative curriculum, we found curriculum design that was actually quite clear and easy from the outset. It was quite clear from dialogue with the university mathematically what was needed and missing when students enter uni. It was the easiest thig from the beginning to put in place and have clarity of vision on. Maths as an A level fixes the majority of what students need to learn, there’s only so much time for project work, and that came from dialogue. Since then we have developed and expanded further. For example, King’s Maths School came down and visit us and vice versa, and they’ve taken part of our project work, we’ve taken parts of their enrichment models so its constantly evolving and progressing and its helped us add to our initial ideas.

The vision and ethos driving the curriculum has been clear, from the start but the curriculum developed very organically over time, and responding to the cohort. 

How will your pupils benefit from the specialist maths education in later life?

When pupils are here. We’re thinking very much about proving an education which is best for them as individuals, a spin off benefit is giving them the skills to contribute to the economy – but I can’t say I became a maths teacher to feed the next industrial revolution. We’re just trying to do the very best by our pupils, and it just so happens that a by-product from doing STEM is that they’re going to contribute to society. We do go to lengths to focus on ethics, and the human side to help them become brilliant future citizens, but we do it for the pupils benefit rather than society. Its great that more broadly it ticks that box as well though. 

What are some of your former pupils doing now?

I recently caught up with one of our maths students from the first pupil cohort when we opened who had received a B in GCSE in maths, and wasn’t the most exceptional mathematician when he was here but he brimmed with interest and curiosity, now he’s just started his PHD at the University of Edinburgh in Mathematics. The qualities that served him well wasn’t an exceptional maths brain, moreover: the ability to ask questions; determination; enjoyment for maths and curiosity for discussion in classes.     

Is pupil success like that the most rewarding moments since opening the school?

Not always. There are students who have had a really tough time and mental health difficulties. When I hear that they’re doing well at university and are on a course at university they love, and have sustained that interest. That makes my heart skip a beat more.

My proudest moment since the school opened was when pupils gave a talk at the University of Exeter in front of 400 people, there was one pupil who had joined us who really struggled with eye contact and found it hard to talk to anyone, stood up and spoke. They’re the proudest moments – knowing it makes a difference. The difference the school has made is more visible.

What is the biggest factor in the school’s academic success compared to non-specialist schools?  

There’s definitely something about bringing people with a shared focus and interest together, that they inspire one another. Our teachers are inspired by our pupils and vice versa. With that said, if pupils have gone to the effort of applying here and go through the process to get here, then they are going to be motivated.

The pastoral care here is quite exceptional, and the pupils we’ve supported who may not be the most academically gifted, could have easily fallen by the wayside or dropped out if they were at another school. There’s a natural benefit to bringing people together who have the same passion and interest. Many of our pupils change and blossom in the first few weeks of being here. Some have can have huge issues with their confidence, and find their tribe here, and after feeling good about themselves they’re able to thrive. At a school like this, they’re accepted for being who they are, whereas showing interest and passion at another school they may have been stigmatised. They let go of their inhibitions at a specialist school like this.   

And then if you extend beyond the curriculum the curriculum makes itself easier. As all pupils are expected to do further maths, it makes A level maths easier. Physics at the school benefits from the fact that they do maths. I’d like to think the quality of our teachers does a lot, but there’s no doubt that the model is a recipe for success as it reinforces itself.     

Exeter Mathematics School has pursued several local partnerships in the community. What have you gained from collaboration with Exeter College and the University of Exeter?

If I hadn’t worked so collaboratively with the college and university I simply wouldn’t have been able to open and run the school. I didn’t come from a traditional headship background: I had never even had a SLT position before, or even a middle management post! Running a school from scratch is very challenging, and for me to be mentored and supported by their expertise, it’s been vital as they helped support my knowledge gaps.

There were loads of practical gaps which they had expertise to support with: the college’s expertise in estates to help get us light fittings to governance, helping us get a brilliant board of governors because they have a great reputation in the city, they were able to attract wonderful people who were excited to be part of this project, and recruiting students the university links got pupils excited and expertise from the college meant that parents were reassured that we knew what we were doing.

And for the students, having a team of people to work with developing the curriculum in that set up time form lecturers from the university to teachers at the college, we were all been able to bounce ideas off each other to develop a curriculum. Having a team of people to work with to get that right was essential because I don’t know what students are typically missing when they get to university, but lecturers at the university sure did.

The school recruits from a huge geographic area and offers boarding for pupils that live far away. How important was it to offer boarding to pupils and how has that contributed toward success? 

Pastorally, boarding at the start became a really useful tool for early intervention. When a pupil was feeling down or pressured it would often manifest in the boarding, so you could very easily react and adapt to how the pupil was feeling to make them at ease and work with them. Boarding became a real feedback loop at the beginning of our free school journey, to rapidly improve as a school: putting in care support for students and being mindful of issues at home. We see the full range of pupil wellbeing and socially they are able to build deeper friendships and support each other and work together. Every year are boarders outperform our non-boarders, and that really contributes to their success.

It’s impossible to unpick why exactly boarders do better. It’s likely a range of factors and benefits to boarding. They can have focus time in school; immerse themselves in the school and academia; feed off each other’s passions and interests more deeply; or it could be that that receive more time and support with boarding staff who help prepare and organise them better for schoolwork.   

We’ve worked very hard of pupil recruitment, because unlike a local school with our ability to recruit from a large catchment area, we don’t have the same benefits of building our local reputation, we’ve got to keep working on it every year.  

What would you like the free schools programme to look like in 10 years’ time?

More specialist maths schools. It’s been wonderful to collaborate with the University of Liverpool maths school and Kings College Maths school and we’ve been able, and still are able to support each other’s success. It’s a collaborative supportive network rather than a competitive one. We’ve also supporting several of the maths schools in pre-opening – Leeds, Imperial and Durham. Once Durham opens we’ve got another maths school that offers boarding so we’ll be able to benchmark from each other’s success.

I’d really like to see more groups considering opening a maths schools offer boarding – and that my regret within the network, because it was imagined that a maths school would serve every region of the country, but it’s impossible without a boarding offer. We serve a large catchment area which encompasses Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset. Our pupils wouldn’t have gotten here if it wasn’t for boarding provision.

Boarding adds a lot to the school, but more so it enables hard to reach pupils to go to maths school. Without boarding you are going to get young people from pockets of the country who are unable to access a specialist maths education which is a great shame and sad, because young people who could benefit from a maths education will miss out as a result.