By contrast here at Highgate, it is the most popular A-level choice, with nearly two thirds of pupils taking maths and further maths. Last year 91 per cent achieved A* to B (including 50 per cent A* in further maths compared with a national figure of 28 per cent).
Many go on to top universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Warwick to read maths and maths-related subjects such as physics and mechanical engineering.
At this point the story of hope might end rather abruptly. Highgate is an independent school in a leafy London suburb where aspirations run high and many parents work in the City. If the nation’s numerical future is really hanging in the balance, surely the solution lies in reaching out way beyond the Georgian terraces and magnolia-lined avenues of the most privileged enclaves?
Potentially even more significant is a new partnership being struck up between private and state sector to replicate models of academic excellence in the areas of greatest need. Abramson’s department is about to share its expertise, resources and teachers with England’s first state-funded free school sixth-form college, the London Academy of Excellence, which will open in September in Stratford, east London, one of the city’s poorest areas.
''The challenge of taking a student to a higher level is the same wherever you are,’’ says Abramson. ''It’s in the teaching. To truly teach maths is to take it beyond the processes into a proper understanding of the concepts. Once you do that it opens up into the most exciting subject imaginable. It’s the only place in the curriculum where you get to be in charge of your own world.’’
The Academy is being launched by Robert Wilne, himself a visionary maths teacher and Cambridge graduate. He is also a former head of maths at Highgate. Wilne is determined that the most academically gifted children in east London should have the same chances of winning places at top universities as those in north London. The maths partnership with Highgate is being replicated in other subjects with other partners, including English with Eton.
Strikingly, maths is already the most popular choice of subject among the applicants for the first 150 places, with more than 80 per choosing single or double maths at A-level. As the Telegraph campaign gather support far and wide to raise the profile of numeracy in Britain, it is perhaps the single greatest sign of hope for the next generation.
''These applicants already see a direct link to business and the key professions,’’ says Wilne. ''But the significance of mathematics is even more important than that. The world doesn’t need mathematicians because they are good at solving quadratic equations. The world needs mathematicians because they think in a particular way, they ask the 'what if’ questions. They are the great problem-solvers.’’
For Wilne, the greatest problem is finding the right teachers to lead a top maths department. Five years ago it was suggested that 40 per cent of all maths graduates would need to become teachers in order to close the growing shortfall. More recently, a report by the Royal Society of Arts, published last month, suggests the scarcity of talented maths teachers is at the heart of the numeracy crisis. An estimated one in six secondary mathematics teachers has transferred from another subject and 25 per cent have no post A-level qualification in maths.
''This is not about parachuting teachers in from the private sector to teach pupils in the state sector,” says Wilne. ''It’s about setting up training and sharing resources that will create a new generation of teachers. It’s sharing both specialist knowledge and the tools to teach abstract concepts in the most exciting way.’’
Once again, it is the private sector that has benefited most from the recent flurry of maths specialists entering the profession, prompted by the recent economic crisis. According to Adam Pettitt, headmaster of Highgate School and a governor of the new academy in Stratford, this has brought the most highly qualified mathematicians from the City into the classroom; he currently employs two former traders and a former banker.
''What Robert Wilne is doing is drawing on all that intellectual capital and finding a direct channel for it into the state sector,’’ says Pettitt. ''Every child should be asking the question 'can I do A-level maths?’ The country is quite a long way from realising that vision because of the number of teachers that requires. But if we are serious about our place in the future, we need to recognise that now.’’
It is a view echoed recently by academics at Britain’s top universities, who condemned cuts to maths research grants. They described maths as ''the bedrock on which our future resides”, and pointed out that the fastest growing sectors – Google, medical imaging, the study of the weather and global finances – are desperate to employ mathematicians.
Among the most optimistic voices is that of Matthew Willett, the student we met poring over quadratic equations at the start. His passion for the subject lies in its timelessness. But he is already committed to ensuring its future.
''In other areas of science, each generation tears down old stuff,’’ says Willett. ''But in mathematics if something is true once, then it’s always true. That’s very cool. A lot of A-level is proving stuff from over 600 years ago. Once you understand it, you can do anything with it. What will I do with it? What I’d like to do more than anything is teach. That’s what I find most fun. Getting the hang of it and passing that on.’’
Rebecca Fowler taught English at Highgate School until 2011.
Comment and join the debate on telegraph.co.uk/makebritaincount