The Department for Education is planning a new qualification in "real-life maths". If it had been around in my day, I might not be so comprehensively innumerate. When I buy something in a shop that costs £17, and the assistant says, "I'm a bit short of change, so how about you give me that twenty, and two pounds, and I'll give you a fiver back?" I ask him to explain it again, more slowly. Martin Amis once said he physically could not open a letter from an accountant, or the Inland Revenue, or anything likely to have numbers inside it. He left all that to his wife. I have a similar policy.
But I bet Amis has a maths O-level. In the late Seventies I gained a CSE Grade 1, which was supposedly the equivalent of the old GCE C grade, but I've never really bought that. The CSE included questions such as "How many sides does a hexagon have?" And it was multiple choice, so you could pick the most likely from (a) none; (b) 25; (c) 4; (d) 6.
My secondary modern school did give me the chance to sit a GCE, and I was taught the course part-time, after school. I remember the maths teacher saying: "Now, the most challenging part of the GCE course is something called 'integration'," and even he was shaking as he said the word.
I never did master "integration". I knew you got marks for "showing your working", so I'd write a jumble of figures before boldly concluding with "QED", underlined twice. I got a "D", and was put off maths for life.
My father had also been taught maths badly. He was at a grammar school during the war, and all the competent maths teachers had been called up. He got some dodderer brought out of retirement, who commanded so little respect that the boys would take the sandbags that were meant to be protecting the windows from bomb blasts and hurl them at him.
My father failed the maths part of his School Certificate, and he has always been indignant about this because he knew he had a talent for real-life maths, which he has always embraced. He became a finance officer on British Rail, and a keen racegoer, so that our house was filled with mathematical calculations written on the back of betting slips. The Jockey Club announced this week that it is seeking to explain betting more clearly to punters, but my dad has always relished "each-way", "reverse exacta", "Jackpot", "Placepot", and he bets in the proper, mathematical way, without ever naming the horse, but only its number, whereas I ploddingly say, "Two pounds on Jim's Folly, please."
Even though my dad is 86 he's very at home in the modern world of price comparison, popular share ownership, Martin's Money Tips. He often bandies numbers with my wife, who is similarly good at practical maths, while I sit there mute, excluded from the conversation – paradoxically enough – by "integration".
Andrew Martin's latest book is 'Belles and Whistles' (Profile Books)Reuse content