A Russian-born billionaire who was the UK’s biggest taxpayer last year is committing tens of millions of pounds to make English school pupils the world’s best in maths.

Alex Gerko’s algorithmic trading company XTX Markets has already given £20 million to maths projects since 2020.

That includes piloting a key stage 4 curriculum with Mathematics Mastery and establishing “maths circles” through the Mathematics Education for Social Mobility and Excellence charity (MESME), which Gerko set up.

XTX is now launching a maths excellence fund, backed by at least £5 million to “develop, test and evaluate collaborative ways to increase attainment and progression” for children aged from 11 to 18.

Opening next month, the fund will initially support schools in a few regions before expanding nationally “as we better understand what is working”, said Si Coyle, XTX’s head of philanthropy.

‘Outstanding support for high potential pupils’

The scale of the investment puts the company among the biggest philanthropic donors in education. Just 71 charitable foundations – across all sectors – handed out more than £10 million last year, according to a report from the Association of Charitable Foundations.

Coyle said the priority was to “help schools serving disadvantaged communities to provide outstanding support for their high potential pupils”.

The cash would “combine direct support for schools and support for charities that work with schools, including curriculum, enrichment, tutoring and teacher development.”

Coyle said three million jobs in England needed advanced maths skills, a figure that would “only increase in the years ahead, driven by growth industries like data science and technology”.

Research the company commissioned from the University of Nottingham found that while 74 per cent of the most advantaged pupils stayed on the maths “excellence pathway” from 11 to 16, that dropped to 49 per cent of pupils on free school meals.

‘Huge opportunity to be best in world’

One of the key focuses will be “maths circles”, trialled by MESME since 2020. The free, out-of-class maths clubs aim to boost state school pupils’ mathematical thinking and curiosity. 

About 2,300 pupils now take part. The aim is for a nationwide network, with 10,000 new pupils joining each year. 

David Thomas, a former DfE special adviser who recently joined MESME as its chief executive, said while England was performing better at maths than ever, there was a “huge opportunity to go further and be the best in the world.

“This is an achievable goal. If half of top-performing but disadvantaged 11-year-olds don’t go on to get at least a grade 7 at GCSE, then we have both a duty and an opportunity to be better.”

MESME pledges to double the number of PhD pupils in mathematical sciences at a UK university by 2035, including poorer pupils in England.

They also want to boost the number of pupils achieving “high grades” in A-level and GCSE maths. 

The charity says year 7 and 8 pupils suitable to take part in maths circles are those who have achieved greater depth in key stage 2 SATs, or those enthusiastic about the subject. 

The charity tells schools at least 30 per cent of pupils taking part should be eligible for pupil premium. 

Russian education inspired maths plan

The maths circles are an export from Russia, where Gerko was born. He grew up in a deprived suburb of Moscow, but studied a specialist maths programme at the city’s renowned School 57, which he credits for his business success.

His company made £667 million in net profits alone in 2021. The Sunday Times Rich List estimated he paid £487.4 million in tax last year – making him the biggest single taxpayer in the country.

Gerko, who has spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, became a British citizen in 2016. 

He has previously said maths circles were aimed at parents who could not afford to pay for private tuition. They would show youngsters, no matter their background, “how beautiful maths actually is”.

But where to find maths mentors?

Teaching expertise, however, is a sticking point. The circles require one mentor for every six pupils and the charity wants mentors who are “mathematically well-qualified”. 

Thomas admitted they will have to be “creative about how to find enough quality people”. They are trialling “all kinds of ideas from training sixth-formers to employing part-time graduates.

“Half of disadvantaged children who are high-attainers at 11 are no longer high-attainers by 16. That is a huge loss of human potential that affects both those children as individuals and us as a wider society. 

“We are focused on stopping that loss.”

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