I’m bad at maths. I want you to know that this is not a boast, though to say that you are bad at maths has somehow become a badge of honour, in a way that publicly saying “I’m barely literate” never can be (even Donald Trump doesn’t admit that). A few years ago, the charity National Numeracy even criticised celebrities who boast about their poor maths skills as contributing to the national “scourge” of poor numeracy.
Why do people do it? Is it to make themselves appear quirky and creative, or do we just not consider it a vital life skill? Either way, it isn’t helping, and now new research from the University of Cambridge has found that studying maths is causing some primary school pupils to feel rage and despair as a result of “maths anxiety” – with some reduced to tears and others struggling to breathe.
“Snowflakes”, some uncharitable readers will no doubt conclude, but anyone who has ever struggled at school will sympathise. It can feel shameful and embarrassing to do badly, especially when others seem to be doing well while your results seem to hover around the 23% mark, as mine did in the year before GSCEs. I am embarrassed, rather than proud, to admit that eventually I was moved down a set. I may write for a national newspaper, but a part of me still worries that one day I’ll need to go back to being a waitress and during the interview the manager will present me with a printout of this column in which I wrote about how I frequently used to give customers the wrong change.
Teaching is a factor, of course. My maths teacher, who would manically scrawl equations on the rolling whiteboard, only for her pupils to look up from their frantic copying to see the sums vanish to make way for a whole new concept, used to shake her head at me. “Rhiannon, Rhiannon, Rhiannon,” she would lament in her strong Welsh accent (I still hear her voice all these years later).
Now, if I am presented with any kind of arithmetic, I am involuntarily gripped with panic and fear. A veil comes down, and my brain stops working. It is exactly the same sensation I would have at school, trying to understand quadratic equations but just not being given the time and attention needed to do so. At the root of my own problems was, I think, the assumption on the part of the teacher that everyone’s brains worked the same way and so the same method should be suitable for everyone. In her binary world, there were “maths brains” and “idiot brains” and naught in between.
Schools are facing a severe teacher shortage when it comes to mathematics, which Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said is contributing to classes being taught by non-specialists and supply staff. Lack of education funding and problems with teacher shortages and retention are undoubtedly factors, but it is my feeling that these problems precede austerity (furthermore, it seems unfair to blame cover staff when they are facing their own battles, not least the amount that some see creamed off their salaries by unscrupulous, profit-making teaching agencies).
Is it too much to suggest that many “maths people” are lacking somewhat in people skills? All it took for me to eventually master quadratic equations was for my mother (who somewhat ironically went on to work as a supply teacher) to sit down with me, treat me with patience and kindness, and to teach me the (different) method that she had learned at grammar school many years before. Unfortunately, teachers are under so much pressure that they can’t always offer tailormade methods to every pupil, and not everyone has parents who can help.
According to a report by the Nuffield Foundation, four out of five adults have low functional mathematics skills, compared with fewer than half of UK adults having a low functional literacy level. The Department of Education claims to be tackling the crisis with “maths hubs” and £41m in funding, but its statement in response to the research made me laugh bitterly: “We’re seeing this approach work with an increase in the numbers of pupils meeting the expected standard of numeracy at key stage 2 – although the education secretary has been clear that these tests should not be a point of anxiety for pupils.” Constant testing is hardly helping.
I don’t know what the solution is (but then I never really did). All I know is that for many “maths anxiety” sufferers, the potential for good numeracy skills was there for them as children, and that this should be cause for hope. If you are able to make children believe that they can solve the sum in front of them, rather than having them start from a position where they believe that they are bound to fail, that is surely half the battle.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist