Hurrah for MATHS!

oak-rootsIt’s not rocket science to understand that maths skills are at the root of success in business, finance, building, science, banking, medicine, upholstery, plumbing, football league tables… and rockets. And, having done training sessions with adults working at an insurance company who couldn’t calculate percentages, it’s easy to understand why the government is keen to support Prof Alison Wolf’s recommendation that students keep studying maths till they reach a level equivalent to a C at GCSE.  As a nation we don’t seem to be very good at numbers. It’s also easy to understand why so many parents and students must be sinking their heads in their hands and groaning.

Most people, at some time, experience the miserable mist of incomprehension that falls over one when asked, for example to describe the two points where a given parabola intersects the x and y axes; or forced to try and imagine what a nifty way of finding a value for cos might be when you have values for sin and tan (and really, why would any one care?).  It’s like a marathon runner hitting “the wall”.

Back in Scotland in the 1970’s they had O Grades and I remember doing one in arithmetic – I think they were compulsory. We all passed, though not everyone passed the mathematics O Grade. It meant we could all add, subtract, multiply and divide. We could also do percentages and compound interest. It was a jolly sensible exam that made sure you could work out useful things – like how much curtain fabric was needed for a pair of bedroom curtains, or how much income you could expect from your savings account.

I think this sort of maths, “Household Maths” or “Tesco Maths”, which helps people work out the real value of a special offer, measure things and understand consumer issues, is excellent.  Everybody should be able to work out whether 20 washes from a bottle of Persil concentrate for £6.38 is better or worse value than 32 washes of multi-colour gels from Ariel for £9.25. (The answer is Yes: Persil would come in at 0.319p per wash and Ariel at 0.289p per wash, however if one is in pre-measured gels amounts rather than pouring it into the little drawer, the gels are probably better value because we tend to over-fill, all calculations need to be reviewed if you live in a hard water area…)

This sort of maths can be extended to include food, eg how many bowls of lentil soup can you make from 200g lentils, 2 slices streaky bacon, 3 carrots, 2 onions and a stock cube, and what does it cost compared to buying a carton of ready-made stuff from Covent Garden soups. It does occur to me that many adults do these calculations automatically and accurately while protesting that they can’t “do” maths. Most children have an innate understanding of pattern and division too, witness the three year old lining up his toy cars in series; or the outrage of the 4 year old not given a fair slice of cake.  Once you can do these kinds of calculations you will have mastered some useful life skills, though if you then move beyond arithmetic to geometry and algebra the beauty really begins. While students are still in formal education there is opportunity to continue to support their learning at whatever level they can manage, we shouldn’t give up.

The obstacles, and misery, have come about in part because of rubbish PR on the part of maths. There is also a tendency to perceive numeracy skills as being too geek-like to be cool. Somehow parents and grandparents find it easy to excuse poor results in maths. “Oh, don’t worry – all our family are rubbish at maths” you hear parents of Year 1 children say as their child has become confused with numbers up to 10. Or “They’ve changed the way they do maths – it doesn’t make sense to anyone anymore, they have ‘bus shelters’ and ‘chunking’, that’s not proper maths” from Year 5 parents. Or, to a girl “Aren’t you clever doing maths and physics, girls aren’t normally any good with numbers”.

So, the Real Life Skills Maths Plan has three components:

1)      Really support our children learning arithmetic right from an early age – bribe them to learn their tables; nag them to do their maths homework; let them weigh, measure and estimate everyday things everyday.*

2)      Be positive about maths and stop using the language of inherited incompetence – just because a child’s father or mother couldn’t multiply doesn’t mean the child won’t ever be able to.

3)      Have confidence that maths – the abstract science of number, quantity and space – is beautiful, creative and philosophically rewarding. It’s magic.


*My mother pointed out recently that when she was a child not only did many families do their housekeeping with a system of jam jars where people literally divided their income for things like rent, food and utilities, they also did it all in base 12 (pounds, shillings and pence).