The National Mathematics & Science College, Coventry
A very small, super selective college specialising in STEM. Since opening in 2016 it's become top of its class in Science, Tech and Maths - perhaps no surprise its catchy tagline is ‘Come Run With The Swift’
There aren’t many colleges where the headteacher tells you it’s ‘the place for geeks’ but the National Mathematics and Science College in Coventry positively revels in it. Specialising in STEM subjects and internationally renowned – the prince of Belgium is currently a pupil – it’s a fairly new college, opening its doors in 2016 for boys and girls doing A Levels and gifted in Science, Tech and Maths. The building itself, on a business park on the edge of Warwick University, is understated, but it’s what inside that counts. Reception is like stepping onto the Starship Enterprise and the rest of the building is equally impressive. The school has 67 students (around 60% boys to 40% girls and when we visited nearly all were international students, with just 3 from the UK – though the college would like to see more) with 53 boarders, though the plan is to double the pupil count in the coming years. Numbers, however, won’t go above 150 to cater for the school’s niche market. Small figures are echoed in the class sizes which go between around 8 and 12.
It’s a small site so the roll call of facilities isn’t huge, but what’s here is shiny, new and en pointe. There’s a fabulous, vaulted ceiling common room in the boarding house, filled with retro furniture and natural light, and a rooftop seating area where the kids can hang out. As you’d expect at a STEM specialist college, the labs are the main catch with all the latest tech bells and whistles – in chemistry alone each student does around 200 experiments during the A-level course. All the rooms in the upstairs part of the school can be converted into labs (yes, they do really like science that much). There’s a fancy 3D printer that, I was proudly told, was used to make a particle accelerator. Walls are plastered with Olympiad and Cambridge Chemistry certificates with students in this year’s cohort ranked among some of the best scientists in the world.
There are no sports facilities on site, but NatMatSci has good relations with all the nearby ‘cool’ hangouts. The Xcel Centre is literally a stone’s throw away and students visit weekly for sports – apparently table tennis is a firm favourite but there’s also a pool and outdoor sports pitches available. NatMatSci holds its hands up to not being an arty school in any way shape or form, so don’t expect wide-ranging orchestras, art studios or drama productions here – but for a bit of music there’s a fancy Steinway in the lobby which I’m told gets quite a bit of use and there is a choir, individual music tuition (for an extra fee) and various Enrichment clubs for the arty and sporty.
There aren’t a huge range of subjects to choose from at A Level here, but that’s what you get at a specialist college. All students must do maths, and up to three subjects from biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, further maths and physics. Budding doctors can also take part in a Preparation for Medicine programme which runs alongside A-Levels and has a wrap-around programme of resources. A Pre-A Level programme is also offered for those coming from overseas.
This is one of the most selective sixth forms in the country and getting in involves the college’s own assessment in maths, English and multiple-choice questions. There’s then an interview with the principal who will also ask a difficult maths question (apparently most kids’ favourite part). This school is looking for the best (its natty tagline is ‘Come Run With The Swift’), so it’s probably no surprise 85 per cent of this year received straight A*/A grades, marking it as the third best co-ed boarding school results in the UK. Since the college opened every student has been offered a place at a Russell Group university and 40 per cent go off to G5 group unis – a group of research universities including Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College.
Being such a specialist ‘nerdy’ college is actually very freeing for these students who love their subjects and want to excel. Aside from school work, there are three sessions a week here dedicated to societies, with chess, debate, nature and crafting amongst the most popular.
Swanky. Boarders stay in private halls of residence directly opposite the college (shared with the University of Warwick) and are split into boys and girls’ floors with a member of the boarding team also in one of the rooms at all times. Students tag in and out of each place with a key fob so they can be accounted for at all times, but there’s a more collegiate approach here than at many boarding schools – the students make their own breakfast (food is provided so don’t worry about early consumption of Pot Noodles), dinner is provided and eaten with house parents and students have to return by 10pm on weeknights and 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
The building is sleek and contemporary, with huge TVs, playstations, table tennis and snooker in the downstairs communal areas. There’s also a communal lounge and kitchen which can be rented to host friends or family, as no one except students are allowed in their rooms.
All students have private ensuite rooms but the boarding environment keeps them busy and supported – there are Cake Wednesdays where staff and boarders play board games and eat treats, film nights every Friday and regular trips to use the facilities at Warwick Uni.
FYI a new, top spec on-site boarding house is set to open in Sept 2022 with the capacity to increase the number of boarders to 140 and also means students under the age of 16 taking pre-A Levels can stay onsite instead of with homestay families.
The Assistant Principal leads pastoral care in the school, supported by form tutors who take an active approach. They have lunch with the students to ‘check in’ once a month, with plans for this to be held at a local restaurant to treat the kids as adults and give them a change of scene away from the school to be more honest. Small groups also take it in turn to have lunch with the principal throughout the year. There’s an external counsellor who comes in weekly for any extra support and mindfulness sessions. In a quiet corner of the college (difficult to find in most schools) there’s a Wellbeing Corner stuffed with squishy bean bags, help boards and even a speaker which plays relaxing rain music, and there are plans for a therapy dog. Student Ilan tells me there are plenty of people around the school available to speak to and there’s a ‘real emphasis’ on mental health. There are currently four students with SEN and provision is good, with a full time coordinator onsite and class flexibility.
What’s your idea of fun? Possibly not this. At NatMatSci one of the most popular competitions is to write some code to calculate as many digits of Pi as possible in 60 seconds – the winner gets a lemon meringue baked by a pastry chef-turned college head of maths. Every day there’s a tough maths question for the kids to solve – you see huge white boards covered with Good Will Hunting-style questions, and a gaggle of keen students trying to solve it. Teachers say they’ve often not even finished writing on the boards before kids are trying to work out the answer. Also, there’s a fiercely fought college cryptography competition. I’ll leave it at that!
Andy Kemp is easy to build a rapport with. He’s knowledgeable and easy to talk to and you get the vibe there’s no problem too big for him – just as well, as he came into the job mid-pandemic just a year ago, inheriting the most expensive day fees in the country. He’s lowered the fees and is working to get more local kids attending the school. He’s made strides to put in place a proper leadership team and introduced Economics to the curriculum. Next steps include the new boarding provision and an onsite kitchen as catering is currently delivered.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Most students are boarders, so wrap-around care provision for day students is being worked out as the school goes along. The school’s can-do approach to most things means day pupils can stay until 6pm and if they come in early in the morning there’s always someone to welcome them. Staying for dinner is also an option for an additional fee.
Excellent bus links to and from the school. Plus the train station is about a 20 minute walk away too with good connections to Birmingham, London and most neighbouring towns.
The college is yet to be visited by ISI and expects its first inspection next year. Its most recent report was by Ofsted in February 2020 which rated it as ‘Good’.
MOBILE PHONE POLICY
No strict policy here as the kids like to use their phones to document experiments. They have to be put away during lessons though unless teachers give permission for phone cameras to be used.
No two ways about it, it’s expensive for boarders at £15,300 per term, or £45,900 annually. Day fees are much more reasonable, and less expensive than other local independent schools – £4,200 per term, or £12,600 a year.
WORD ON THE GROUND
Friendly, informal and a sense of the school as a family – perhaps no surprise with such small numbers. The majority of international students here is seen as a bonus by the British pupils – all students must talk English on campus and so there are no cliques, just an appreciation of other cultures. Student Jonty told me being able to meet and connect with people from all over the world is one of his favourite parts of being at the college, and NatMatSci alumni Yung Jun (who’s now at Oxford Uni) said being surrounded by so many likeminded people and in the international environment is what makes it extra special.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Those who are gifted in STEM subjects or show potential. Budding future leaders of communities, business and research. A great option for kids who are ready for a more collegiate environment.
Not for: If you’re looking for somewhere that values its sport and arts as much as its STEM, this isn’t the place for you. There’s only one thing this college is doing – but boy it’s doing it well.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! Check out the Sixth Form Virtual Open Day on 29 March. Register here.
The National Mathematics and Science College, Westwood Way, Coventry, Warwickshire, CV4 8JB. 024 75 092950