GCSE students from deprived areas in inner-city and Greater London are beginning an innovative and intensive course in mathematics at Cambridge University.

The $1.2m Fast Forward Maths programme, funded by the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the US’ largest investment bank, is launched today with a speech by Professor John Rallison, pro vice-chancellor for education.

It will be run by the University over three years and will benefit groups who are under-represented in higher education, such as ethnic minority students. It aims to enrich the students’ knowledge of maths as well as raise their aspirations about going on to higher education. It will also target teachers working in schools across the country through a parallel Teacher Inspiration programme.

Forty students have been spending the last week of August at the University doing workshops on subjects as varied as black holes, code breaking and algebra. Lecturers taking part include renowned mathematicians and scientists, such as John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences and Director of the University’s Millennium Maths project. The students have also been given a taste of Cambridge life, staying at a Cambridge college and going punting. They were selected by their teachers and are being mentored by Cambridge undergraduates.

Lyvonne Saunders, a pupil at Queen’s Park Community School, said: “Before I came here I didn’t think I would study maths, but coming here makes me think I could do it. I would definitely apply to Cambridge. I thought people would talk posh, but they don’t and the teachers treat you like adults – you can talk to them.”

Sonia Mason from Addey and Stanhope Technology School in New Cross said: “My mum is really behind this as she didn’t go to university and she wants me to be able to go.”

Mark Copestake, head of Cambridge’s Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications, said: “It is really opening up their eyes about how maths can be fun, interactive and varied and it is also a great opportunity to raise aspirations and for them to be away from home in an academic environment.”

There will be two further residential workshops at the University in December and July and during the year the students will receive e-mentoring from undergraduates in conjunction with online maths support and resources to explore from Cambridge mathematicians. The approach will focus on problem-solving and strategic reasoning skills, which research shows are key to boosting attainment at maths.

Priority has been given to students who:

• Will be the first generation in their family to attend university
• Have parents in non-professional occupations
• Are from minority ethnic backgrounds currently under-represented in HE
• Attend a school with a low overall GCSE A*-C average and/or with a low overall A-level point score
• Attend a school with a high proportion of free school meals
• Attend a school with a low proportion of students going on to higher education

The project will also include three Goldman Sachs Teacher Inspiration Days in October, March and July for teachers at disadvantaged schools across the UK. They will include workshops and discussion around areas such as building students’ confidence and challenging high attainers as well as information about applying to Cambridge.

Professor John Barrow said: “Mathematics is an enormously important subject, which is fundamental to understanding the world around us, and it can also be hugely rewarding as an academic discipline. We're hoping to share our enjoyment of maths with these students, to give them a real sense of excitement about the subject and to help them to explore it in more depth. We hope that they'll be inspired to think seriously about continuing to study it in the future.”

The Fast Forward Maths programme is the first time Cambridge has run a subject-specific residential programme over such a lengthy period. It will be run by two award-winning divisions of the University of Cambridge: the NRICH Project, which is part of the Millennium Mathematics Project, and the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications (GEEMA), which is part of the Widening Participation Team in the Cambridge Admissions Office.

Stephanie Bell-Rose, President of The Goldman Sachs Foundation, said, "The Goldman Sachs Foundation supports initiatives that give promising young people from underserved backgrounds access to programs that will help them develop the academic and leadership skills needed to succeed in leading universities and, ultimately, in their careers. Quantitative skills are critical to their educational and professional success, and we are pleased to support this effort to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics in the United Kingdom."