Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Andrew Dilnot, principal of St Hugh's College, Oxford, economist and broadcaster

'I'm quite good with numbers'
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The Independent Online

Andrew Dilnot, 47, is one of the few Oxford College heads to be educated at a comprehensive. He is the co-author of "The Tiger that Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers", and has presented 12 series of "More or Less" on Radio 4. He was director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies

I didn't know my multiplication tables until my children were learning them. I now know that nine eights are 72, but until my early thirties I would work it out: 10 eights equals 80, take away one eight, equals 72. This is a reminder that there is more than one way of skinning a cat! I also remember that at eight or nine, I didn't know the order of the alphabet for looking things up in dictionaries.

I was at primary school St Mary's Platt and then Winchester House in Sevenoaks in the Sixties, and this was a sign of the times. While in general it is useful to know your tables, it is even more important not to be frightened of numbers. With the arrival of the calculator, it is less important to know that 12 times 11 is 132 but it is important to know roughly what it is.

I went to Maidstone Grammar for a year, and then we moved to Swansea, where I went to Olchfa Comprehensive. It was a shock to go to such a big school, with close to 2,500 pupils and, at one point, 15 forms in each year. People talk about the Welsh valuing education, and that school provided me with a great one. I had a series of fantastic maths teachers. Dai Jenkins was mesmerising, inspirational, fabulous. He was demanding, too. He would throw the board duster about and, during one lesson in my fourth year, when I had finished all my work and packed my bag to go home, he put the wastepaper basket on my head upside down. I still have the old exercise books with his marks in red ink: "3/10 oaf!"

People who were good at maths would do O-levels and A-levels a year early. In my O-levels I got four As, three Bs and a C (that was in English language, which most of us did a year early, perhaps unwisely in my case). One of the As was in maths, and in A-levels I got an A in maths, history and economics. I got a D in French, but I already had a provisional place at Oxford and they weren't interested in how I did in French, so I stopped going to classes. Also, in the French literature paper I wrote what I considered to be an outstanding essay on a poem by Baudelaire, and it turned out to be by Verlaine!

Until two years before I went to the school, nobody had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Then the deputy head, Iris Williams, said, "My children are good enough!" and in my year, 15 of us went up to Oxford or Cambridge.

St John's College was fantastic, but the most important thing I did was to fall in love with a lovely young woman, Catherine. Now my wife, she's a proper mathematician and teaches at Oxford Brookes. She was at St Hugh's, the college of which I became principal five years ago, and has ended up living five doors down from where she lived as a student.

With really good mathematicians, the clarity of their insight into this almost abstract world is striking. I'm quite good with numbers but that's different. I might have been able to do maths at university, but it would have been wrong. I did PPE [politics, philosophy and economics]. My love of numbers and data had been channelled into economics. It was soon clear that I had found the subject I was good at.

I got a 2:1. I was very close to a First, but got a gamma double-minus in "Political Institutions". My tutor John Kay was furious: "If you took someone off the street and got them to do a paper on Political Institutions, you'd expect them to do better than that!"