Family & Education

Finally, I have figured out maths

You may struggle with numbers - but it counts not to give up


Everyone in my family is a maths brainbox — except me. Like a set of Happy Family cards, we include Mr Maths, the statistician; Master Maths, the accountant; Mrs Maths, the bookkeeper and two Misses Maths, A*-at-a-levellers. My earliest memory of maths is from Infants Two, when my friend Sarah went to Israel for a whole term. Reluctant to get ahead of her in the textbook, I stopped working. In Juniors, I regularly missed trigonometry because it clashed with my duty as staffroom biscuit monitor.

My parents called in a tutor — this led to a tantrum in which I scrunched up my long-division sums and stuffed them into a cup of tea. He persevered and improved my maths enough for me to win a place at a top girls’ school. Where everyone was a maths brainbox — except me. Maths lessons were impossible to follow, so I passed the time writing poetry or covertly doing my history homework. Still, it got me down.

I sat maths O-level early (it was compulsory) and I am not telling you what grade I received. I was thrilled to quit the subject forever. But when my younger daughter, Manuella, qualified as a maths teacher, she challenged me to try again. She began to teach me. No tea was involved this time, possibly because maths was not about long division any more but also because they had invented Starbucks since the last time I took exams. Nor did the GCSE require log tables or slide rules and you could use a calculator. And wow, what today’s calculators can do! They can display fractions, actual fractions with a line between the top and the bottom bits (yeah, yeah, the numerator and the denominator). And then convert them to decimals at the touch of a button. Wow.

For months, I was patiently instructed in circle theorems, algebraic fractions and, crucially, how to make the curves on my graph “look like Kim Kardashian’s bum” (she had not been invented the first time I took maths, either). But as an English graduate, I preferred questions that involved a story — problems about a hedgehog trying to cross the road with a 0.4 probability of being run over, or graphs about Ted’s journey to his grandma’s house.

Eventually the day arrived and I presented myself at the exam centre, clutching those exam icons — the clear pencil case (selected by my older daughter, Dawn, in her favourite pink), label-less water bottle and de-lidded calculator (my husband was eagerly awaiting its return). I was better equipped than some other mature candidates who, despite being Actual Grown-ups, arrived minus a compass, or with blue pens instead of regulation black. Tut. 

I had expected a few child geniuses and there they were, improbably tiny candidates, discussing with their proud parents the same past papers I had grappled with myself. There were teenage re-takers, flicking through revision guides or folders of highlighted notes — and a surprising number of over-30s. One woman left the first exam early, as she had no one else to collect her child from school — but from the part of the paper she had managed, she was hoping to gain a C — enough to change career. “I want to make my son proud of me,” she said. By contrast my exams felt trivial — little more than a dare.

Whatever the result — and I’ll know in a few weeks — I made friends with maths. And the experience has renewed my belief that one-to-one teaching is not just for kids of pushy parents but has real value in providing a safe space for less-confident students, at any age, to fail and try again. 

Five tips for maths confidence by Mathnasium Learning Centres:

Do maths with your child every day. Just as reading a little each day helps build literacy skills, daily “mathing” with your child builds numeracy.  Practice can range from basic skills, such as addition, subtraction and multiplication, to finding and naming shapes in everyday objects, helping with the weekly shop, using recipes or finding percentage discounts.

Help your child practise numerical fluency verbally, on paper or with manipulatives (physical objects). Number bonds to 10, doubles and breaking apart single-digit numbers are good topics for young students. Counting in a number such as twos, fives and 10s, along with saying multiplication tables, are good for older students.

Encourage your child to talk about how they arrived at their answer.  This is just as important as getting the answer right. It provides an opportunity to reinforce efficient techniques or correct inefficient ones and is a chance for the child to self-correct.

Use positive language and encourage your child to do the same when talking about maths. Remind them that mistakes are a necessary and useful part of learning any subject.  

When doing word problems, read them aloud or ask your child to do so, if they are struggling to understand.  Often hearing the problem stated out loud helps students access

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