Your college’s first Chairman of Trustees must surely have attended or chaired many meetings, during his Prime Ministerial term throughout World War II, having consumed copious quantities of spirituous liquor. No fool he. ]]>

Why, the University of California, Los Angeles, of course :

http://www.city-journal.org/2014/24_4_racial-microaggression.html

]]>For background, I was state educated (a grammar school) and I have just finished a 4-year term as the governor of a state primary school. I am male. A more complete declaration of interests can be read at http://damtp.cam.ac.uk/user/sjc1/Interests/Interests.pdf.

A number of us have been following this thread. It has provoked [yet more] discussion. As you might guess, Cambridge does track success rates by gender, by school, and by gender & school. The figures indicate that the success-rate of female offer-holders from state schools is lower than, say, male offer-holders from independent schools. There are probably multiple reasons for this. The Faculty at Cambridge would very much like to understand what they are, and we are working to that end. STEP might be one component, but personally I do not believe that it is the only component.

However, the point I wish to emphasise in this post, is that contextual data is taken into account. So in making offers and deciding on acceptances, many of us take into account that students from well-resourced independent schools have had more opportunities than students from, say, some (but not all) comprehensives, e.g. at the College that I am most familiar with, of the 13 that have matriculated in Mathematics this year, 10 were state educated, 2 were educated in the independent sector (but one counts as an overseas student) and the other is an overseas student (3 are women). The Faculty in Cambridge want to teach the best students; period. So it is in our interest to admit the most talented, as opposed to the best trained, students. So, for instance, I expect students from the independent sector to achieve a 1,1 offer in STEP. However, if Cambridge only took students who achieved 1,1, then there would only be about 170 students in the first year. About 70 students who do not make their formal offer are taken each year, and many aspects are taken into account when relaxing the offer (not in the least, life opportunities).

Finally might I comment on “I suspect that under the current system the probability of success for a girl at a comprehensive is disproportionately small and arguably not worth the risk”. I have been interviewing students off and on since 1990. I have only ever award one 10/10 in interview. That was to a female student from a state comprehensive, and my interview assessment proved to be correct. So if you are a female student from a state comprehensive, please read all the above, please weigh it in the balance, but please still apply to Cambridge.

]]>We would like to stress that in our daughter’s case, and no doubt in many others, she found Stephen’s online STEP materials extremely useful and her mathematical skills and understanding developed enormously as a result. In fact it was through doing the STEP questions that she realised she wanted to pursue maths rather than physics. She was very grateful for the STEP Easter course and the online follow-up provided by Cambridge, although I will address the issue of the STEP 3 syllabus in a later paragraph. However, with the exception of the Easter course, STEP preparation was, as previously mentioned, a lonely experience and made terribly stressful by the knowledge of what was at stake.

We do feel aggrieved that it was not made clearer before application that such a high offer-to-place ratio existed, and that effectively the STEP boundaries are altered to ensure that only the top 240 or so candidates are successful, no matter how well they do on the day. We now accept that this information can be found by digging around on the internet, but the offer to place ratio has increased markedly in recent years and we did not find this out until after application. Schools with a strong history of Cambridge maths applications would already be aware of this information, and it would be very simple to spell out this fact at open days and on the website so that those pupils and schools with less experience knew what was ahead of them.

Our daughter’s STEP 2 score was lower than she hoped largely due to a silly mistake at the beginning of one question and she fully accepts that was just unfortunate; I have already discussed the movement of the boundaries. Our biggest issue with STEP itself is the breadth of the syllabus for paper 3, and the effective lottery that this creates for candidates. Possibly 2013 was an atypical paper and she was simply unlucky. Perhaps the structure of the paper could be changed to reassure candidates that at least some of their chosen topics would come up.

Our daughter began preparing for STEP as soon as she received her offer and self-studied many topics beyond her exam modules, including differential equations, collisions, projectiles and more advanced statistics. She obviously needed to maintain her exam grades, so she was reassured by the advice at the Easter course that she did not need to cover every topic and was satisfied that she could score enough marks on STEP 3 from those she had already studied. She had tackled many past papers and was reliably solving four or five problems per paper. In the event, her actual STEP 3 paper had none of her favoured mechanics and statistics topics, and the pure maths was very biased towards vectors and complex numbers; not areas she had concentrated on. It seems all the applied maths was from the M 3/4 and S 3/4 modules, rather than more challenging questions from the earlier modules. However much potential an applicant has, they cannot solve problems requiring prior knowledge if they do not have that knowledge. Previous STEP 3 papers had contained a few questions (e.g. number theory and probability) which relied on ability rather than knowledge; she was banking on a couple of these but they were largely absent from that year’s paper. She realised within the first few minutes that she would not be able to gain the required marks, battled her way through a dispiriting three hours, and left the exam in floods of tears and totally demoralised. We suspect that in her year many successful candidates were simply ‘lucky’ to have studied complex numbers, PDFs and moments of inertia! That does not seem to be the best way of gauging potential so it will be interesting to see whether Tripos results correlate with STEP as well as normal.

The advice given to applicants is that given a choice by their school, they should choose mechanics and statistics modules. This should be changed to stress to both schools and candidates much earlier in the sixth form that they should not waste time on decision maths (chosen by schools to maximise results), but should if necessary self-study extra mechanics and statistics. The schools of offer holders whose SAQ indicates that they are studying unsuitable modules could be reminded of the need to modify their plans.

A major issue for most UK state schools is that five hours a week of maths from the ages of 4 to sixteen leads to one GCSE at sixteen, whereas the syllabus for many other GCSE subjects can be taught in two hours a week for two years. This means that for a gifted pupil, maths before sixteen is often tedious and lacking in challenge. It also leaves a huge amount of more interesting advanced maths to be rushed in the sixth form, when much could have covered earlier. This is not Cambridge’s fault, but they need to recognise that government pressure on schools results in the need to maximise grades for all their pupils, both at GCSE and A-level. There are simply not the resources to provide individual tuition to one or two outstanding pupils.

In contrast, those pupils at very selective schools (whether state or private) will have other very able mathematicians to work with and are likely to have been pushed to work at a high level throughout their school career. These schools are more likely to have the resources to teach advanced maths to pupils earlier in their school careers, complete the core A2 modules early in year 12, and by the time pupils are in the sixth form they are able to provide teaching for the more obscure DE, FP3, M 3/4 and S 3/4 modules which we have since discovered are so vital to STEP success. Their pupils are generally provided with intense STEP coaching throughout the sixth form.

We appreciate there are many excellent materials available online, but these are not a substitute for the challenge and excitement of working collaboratively with other able students. There needs to be more focus on non-selective schools pooling resources and working together to identify and teach exceptional mathematicians as a group if WP is to be effective in maths. Universities in general are in a good position to help with this but current provision is very patchy. Stephen mentions the development of a correspondence course earlier in the sixth form, which I am sure will be very welcome.

Our other major concern is the issue of girls’ under-performance in STEP relative to that of boys, and the seemingly huge gender disparity in converting offers to places, which we found quite shocking. It was this information from Ruth Dixon that initially prompted me to contribute to this blog. We are reassured to be told that the department are actively pursuing this issue, but the current data is not readily available to applicants. We would very much like to know what proportion of girls from non-selective state schools achieve a place for maths and wonder whether Stephen could find this out?

I wonder whether the Cambridge maths department fully appreciate how high the hurdle is for pupils from a non-selective school, and for girls in general. I suspect that under the current system the probability of success for a girl at a comprehensive is disproportionately small and arguably not worth the risk!

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