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).

“Career Advice for Ambitious Women” from Mrs Moneypenny

Just finished reading “Careers Advice for Ambitious Women” by Mrs Moneypenny, aka Heather McGregor. Gosh, I am left feeling invigorated by her enormous energy and enthusiasm – and a little in awe of the single minded approach she advocates.  Mrs Moneypenny gives some essential career advice in a really accessible style, illustrated with loads of examples and anecdotes.  It is all about focus, connecting, getting help when you need it and discarding, or side-lining, those things you don’t need.  She is quite tough on this – discarding guilt; out-sourcing child care and some parenting; embracing the virtues of the shop-bought cake.

Much of the advice is not gender specific at all and fabulously practical for anyone with a clear vision of where they want to go. She feels very strongly about becoming as financially literate as possible* – as she points out, the people that know where the money is coming from and going to really have an inside track compared to the rest. She reckons one sure fire way to get to the top of an organisation is through managing the money – her advice: if possible become an accountant.

The two other non-gender specific items of advice are to do with “What you know…” and “Who you know…”. Mrs M reckons you should go as high up the academic tree as possible (she has an MBA and a PhD and a pilots licence). Her reasoning here is that qualifications give you confidence, as well as knowledge. While I completely agree with that, I think that university qualifications are only one, quite narrow, type of recognition.  There are currently over 10 applications for each apprenticeship.  For many young people the most basic qualification of all: a driving licence, is the one which has initially opened the most doors.

“Who you know…” is about your network and connections.  As she says “The truth is, if you want to achieve your goals in life, you need to be both good at what you do and good at building relationships with people who matter”.  The key advice here is to work at building relationships – these are the people with whom you share information and experiences. Mrs Moneypenny is interested in volume and has several ideas of how to meet and connect people. I think numbers are quite important, but so is quality. The network is best when it is made up of the people whom you would go the extra mile for and who would do the same for you.

The advice specifically for women is about how to resolve the conundrum of how to “have it all” while remaining a sane, lovely mother/wife/daughter/friend. Her answer is that “having it all” is not possible, Superwoman does not exist and so you need to prioritise what’s most important to you. She also recommends you get help so that you are not trying to do alone all the things that are expected of you as mother/wife/daughter/friend. Affording help can be a problem if your chosen career isn’t well paid – the book is quite City centred where things may be different. And some things are not the same outsourced. Last week at the National Schools Rowing Regatta I spotted a healthy, muscular adolescent being congratulated on winning a medal, he looked quite pleased – and then his whole face lit up as he saw his father appear through the crowd “Look, my Daddy’s here…”

This is a robust book with some good ideas and I would recommend it to women wanting a no-nonsense, and speedy, read. After some thought I have concluded that the areas that I take issue with are related to parenting (Mrs Moneypenny has three sons: Cost Centres 1, 2 and 3) – and, as she says herself, this isn’t a parenting book. So, I’m off to try some of the homework exercises that come after each chapter – as Mrs Moneypenny writes “It’s never too late to move forward, whatever your ambition. You can do it!”

“Mrs Moneypenny’s Career Advice for Ambitious Women”, Heather McGregor, published by Penguin, 2012

* For women historically this was an area of particular weakness – I know women of a certain age who still don’t understand their own house-hold finances because their husbands “do” all that stuff.  And as Mrs Moneypenny points out, women need more money than men because they live longer, on average earn less and are more likely to end up as single parents raising a family on a limited income. That’s a pretty grim thought.

Serendipity in 2013

Just as the year starts and plans – PLANS – and resolutions are being made it might not seem all that timely to talk of serendipity. Those special moments of happy co-incidence, good luck, karma… call it what you will, they do happen for everyone, but the difference between people considered lucky and the rest is what they do when the moment arrives.

So first you need to recognise the moment of serendipity and they you need to be prepared to take the opportunity, or risk, it offers.

Let me illustrate this with an example.  A young man trying to find a job in finance goes on a skiing holiday and talks to every middle aged man he shares a ski-lift with.  One day he sits next to a director of a stock broking company who enjoys his company and forth-right manner and gives him his card. The young man follows up with a letter and a call, and got a job as a broker.  Years later the young made has become a middle-aged entrepreneur and is sitting on a train contemplating his next venture.  Sitting opposite him is a young man just like he had been, engaging in conversation, asking questions and being interested.  Our entrepreneur is impressed and offers him a job.

The danger of taking the random moment is summed up in Dr Pepper’s recent ad campaign – “What’s the worst that can happen?” turns out to include being left butt naked; wrestling with the girl friend’s father and so on – but at least the person’s thirst is quenched.  Taking a chance on the serendipitous moment comes with risks: being diverted from your original plan; losing money, confidence or contacts.  The good that comes from such bad moments is when we learn and gain experience.  And the sky is the limit in terms of the good that can come from good moments.

My resolution for this year? Take the chance, embrace the risk, and learn to love and live the consequences… bring on 2013!