Give me an inch and I'll make it a mile
It's all very well having summer schools to improve children's numeracy, but parents need help with their sums, too, says Diana Appleyard
Friday 12 June 1998
Maths is the one subject most of us feel supremely unconfident about. Every night when my daughter pulls out her homework books, I find myself praying that it will not be maths. At the age of 10, she has already gone beyond the kind of maths with which I can cope - you know, timetables and simple addition and subtraction. She's now into number bonds and - horrors - algebra. Show me one of those little "x" signs and I'm off.
I presume that at some time in my schooling I was taught how to multiply and add up fractions, but now I wouldn't know where to start. Ask me about the wives of Henry VIII or even how to form a glaciated valley and I'm a positive mine of information - but say "percentages" and all I can come up with is a total blank.
My daughter has been having trouble memorising her times tables, and with the eleven-plus looming next year, her teacher says she must have them at her fingertips. So as we drive along in the car, I say, "Seven eights?"
"Dunno," she says.
Oh dear, I dunno either.
"Nine sevens?" she asks me.
I make a wild guess. "Sixtysomething?"
"Oh, mum," she says. "You're not helping at all."
The awful thing about maths, is that it reveals to her just how very little her mother knows. Most children tend to assume that their parents know absolutely everything, so they are amazed when they start sweating at the thought of long multiplication. Just to confuse us, they do it differently now, too - the little numbers seem to be put in different places and I find it all very confusing.
You can't pretend with maths, either - no secret nipping into the study to consult Encarta and returning casually with a wealth of information on the dietary habits of the Vikings or the qualities of igneous rock. You can either do long multiplication or you can't. And I patently can't. The tiny amount of maths I do retain is simply not adequate for the rigours of normal life. I find myself hunched over the counter in the bank, trying desperately to add up my cheque amounts, forgetting a number half-way down and having to start again, whilst a huge queue forms behind me. Invariably I get a letter from the bank a few days later gently informing me that I have miscalculated to the tune of pounds 53 - usually not in my favour.
Even calculating change is a nightmare, as I hand shovels of one pence pieces backwards and forwards. Thank God for Switch and Visa cards - at least all you have to do with them is boggle at the amount you're spending, rather than actually have to add it up.
Anything with numbers has me in a knot. Bank statements, endowment bonuses, pensions - I loathe them. There is currently a large stack of official- looking large white envelopes on my kitchen table, which promise to tell me exactly how my pension and endowments are performing. But they wouldn't - I would just glaze at the list of figures, or alternately get panicky.
While other parents were bemoaning the introduction of calculators, I was thrilled. No more adding up or subtracting in your head! But the trouble is I can never find the darn thing. So when I am trying to work out exactly how much our electricity bill should be for the quarter, I end up with a piece of paper covered in noughts and crossings-out.
The schools' watchdog organisation, Ofsted, has already identified that the fact that this country is falling sadly behind almost all of our European compatriots when it comes to our children's numeracy skills. But as a parent, it's so hard to introduce the concept of maths. Literacy is so much easier. I feel far more confident about sharing books, drawing pictures, teaching my children their first letters and how to write their name. There's no mystery to it. But with maths, where do you start? Already my four-year-old can write her name, Charlotte - but ask her to add two and two and she flings up her arms and says, "I simply haven't got a clue!" Unfortunately, woolly maths brains seem to run in our family.
So government, take note. All around the country there must be parents like me, sadly trailing behind our 10-year-olds, unable to make even the simplest calculation. The doors of the summer numeracy centres should be flung open to all of us maths-inadequates who cannot look a pension statement in the face.
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