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Outreach to schools is more necessary than ever

  • 27 October 2021
  • By Nick Barker

This blog was kindly contributed by Nick Barker, Schools Outreach Fellow, Social Inclusion Group, The University of Warwick.

If this was a film and I wanted to set the scene for you, we could start by looking down on me, sat in front of my laptop. The camera would then go upwards and you would realise I am in a primary school classroom. It would somehow go outside and then climb higher and you would notice that I am not in a very affluent place. In fact, I am sitting in the middle of an area which is amongst the most socially deprived 10 per cent of communities in the country. I work for the University of Warwick, but this is where I am based.

Back in that classroom, the other morning, the door opened and Max, a child in Year 6, asked if he could talk to me. He pulled a crumpled bit of paper out of his pocket and said, and I quote, ‘can I explain the Collatz Conjecture to you?’

I said, ‘have you been watching Numberphile videos on YouTube again?’

Max said, ‘yes’ and smiled happily, holding the paper towards me.

Take any number. If it’s even, halve it and keep halving it until you have an odd number. As soon as you have odd number treble it and add one. Keep repeating this process and, eventually, the number you reach is always 1. Mathematics has, so far, been unable to prove why that is so. The person who proves why it is so will have discovered a new mathematical tool. And that tool could be used to help us solve other, applied, important, pressing problems. That’s exactly what Max explained to me, and he’d drawn it all out too.

I was so happy, I sent an email to the makers of the Numberphile videos to say thanks for helping a child to believe in himself. (And received a nice reply.) Then I wrote to Lucie at the student Mathematical Society at the University of Warwick. A message was sent out asking if someone knew about Collatz and could talk to Max. It didn’t take long for Luca to respond saying he’d like to. On Monday, via a video call, a 10-year-old was explaining what he’d found out to a person studying one of the most respected Maths degree courses in the country. Luca told Max he’d done a great job. I was sat next to Max when he was told that; he grew an inch and beamed from ear to ear. Luca expanded upon why the Collatz Conjecture is important and suggested that we check out Ramsey Theory next! We are arranging for Max and some of his friends to go and see Lucie, Luca and their friends as soon as we can.

Remember, we are in a place that is measured as one of the most socially deprived areas in the country and a child is learning about mathematics on YouTube. By himself. And, I assure you, he’s not the only one in my host school doing that. Thanks Numberphile, thanks YouTube, thanks internet! It isn’t just about Maths. A child can’t believe in themselves unless they are believed in. Lucie and Luca understood that instantly. They showed a young boy he matters and I hope the memory of how he felt stays with him forever.

Maybe maths isn’t your thing. Maybe you’d prefer the story about my equally recent conversation with a new pupil who told me why India was involved in World War Two, about the partition of India and the merits of Imran Khan. Aged 10. In her third language. She told me she wants to understand algebra and – when she is older – do something that helps people.

Now, look again at the findings of the research you probably already know. Really how likely is it that a child growing up in the bottom 10 per cent of society will go to university? Roughly nine out of ten children attend non-selective state schools. In the North-East of England, the BBC reports one in four children are receiving free school meals. This year, 70 per cent of independently educated students obtained the highest A-level grades while 39 per cent of state comprehensive pupils did so. White British boys on free school meals are the least likely demographic to go to higher education and only 25 per cent of them obtain five or more good passes at GCSE. Children come to see their social value based upon perceptions of their social class and intelligence between the ages of nine and 13.

The focus of our mainstream media has moved on to some extent, but COVID hampered and hampers the education of every child. From my perspective, it is has now become even harder for our society to realise the talent residing in our poorest communities. We need children from every kind of background to flourish and grow and, so, we need the least advantaged children to do that too.

The person who proves the Collatz Conjecture will have discovered a new branch of Mathematics that could be used to solve other problems that could benefit everyone. What if the person with the intellect capable of doing that is currently a child on free school meals living in a community measured as being in the 10 per cent most socially deprived in the country?

University Outreach has never been more important than it is right now. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to do. Whole school assemblies are not happening and visits to universities by school pupils are very difficult to arrange, too. Things are not back to normal.

School pupils everywhere and from all backgrounds have suffered because of COVID lockdowns but the situation remains extremely serious for children from our least advantaged communities.

How can we help them to regain a sense of direction and retain positive educational aspirations? How are young people supposed to make informed choices when they have not even been able to visit a university? And how will universities continue to widen participation now that the gap between the most and the least affluent has grown so much?

What I hope the story of how Max came to meet Luca shows is what magic can be worked when a school pupil meets a university student who wants to meet them. They are relatable and relevant and have such talent and positivity. These interactions could be at the heart of a strategy to address the damage the COVID pandemic has brought to education and answer the questions I asked above. It doesn’t matter if it is online or infrequently. It works.

Since I wrote this, Max has watched more Numberphile videos and has worked out the sum of the internal angles of a heptagon. As Max told me, ‘Luca is cool’. I agreed. He is.

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1 comment

  1. John Bird says:

    Having experience of HE links with schools, I have 2 brief Points: (1) this work should include work with primary schools and (2) it needs to be long term, ie. Working with small groups of schools over long periods of time; (3) there is a need for careful planning between HEIs to avoid competition and the targeting of the same school. In addition, the development of MATs doesn’t make work with schools any easier.

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