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"I Can't Do Maths": If You're Saying It, Your Kids Probably Are Too

15 Mar 2014

by National Numeracy Trustee Wendy Jones
Originally published on Mumsnet in March 2014

I remember one particular parents' evening at my children's infant school. It was dedicated to maths, the displays of equipment were superb and the head teacher was desperate to persuade us that maths was something real. She asked: "Now who's used maths today?"

We knew we were being slightly patronised. We wriggled around embarrassedly on chairs designed for very small bottoms and came up with lacklustre variations on "I've been to the supermarket" or "I've checked off invoices at work".

But we weren't convinced that this was what we had come to hear about. We wanted to know whether our kids were being taught their tables and what tessellation was all about.

One mum whose day – or rather night – job was as a croupier injected a touch of glamour into an otherwise flat (but well intentioned) evening, with her examples of maths usage....

But we left not that much the wiser about how our children were really learning maths.

This was a long time ago – my children are now at work or university. The school obviously did something right because two of my three (the two girls – to confound gender stereotypes) went on to do A-level maths.

But I have a feeling that, in some ways, things are little changed when it comes to parents and maths. What was telling was that there weren't many of us there that evening and most of us were a bit nervous about discussing maths.

The reluctance, or worse, that many parents feel towards the subject can settle in early and get passed on too easily to our children. But it shouldn't be so.

Young, pre-school children are naturally enthusiastic about numbers and shapes and counting. It's easy to encourage them to look out for maths in every aspect of daily life – in cooking, shopping, sorting things, going on a journey. To normalise maths, if you like. That stands them in good stead for when school maths does start to get more abstract.

But perhaps even more important is to talk about maths positively and to continue doing so at they get older. The real danger is of denigrating maths. Of saying: "It's not that important, you can get by without it." Yes it is and no you can't. Or: "I'm no good at maths." If that is the case, do something about it, don't brag about it.

I'm not suggesting that we start lecturing our kids about the links between numeracy and getting a job, earning a decent wage, managing money, being healthy and happy even (although it's worth bearing these things in mind, and you'll find plenty in that vein on this website).

But we do need to be aware of this odd cultural thing we have in this country of rubbishing maths. And – sadly – I have to admit it does seem to be more common among my female friends. All the research evidence too suggests that girls and women are less confident about maths.

When we started up National Numeracy in 2012, the Today programme interviewed a woman called Paula, who admitted that she "just didn't get" maths at school. In adult life, she was often unsure whether she was being short-changed in shops. But it was when she

heard her children saying they were "rubbish at maths, just like mum" that she decided to do something about it. She went to numeracy classes at college – where she did start to get it.

That's the point. Maths is not a 'can' or 'can't do' subject. Everyone can learn to get better at it. With this in mind, National Numeracy launched the National Numeracy Challenge. It's a big drive to improve numeracy across the UK and at its heart is an online site that lets you check your own everyday maths skills (in the privacy of your own home, if you like), see exactly where you need to brush up, find online learning resources that match those needs, then return to the check-up to see how you've improved.

As the Challenge stresses, the important thing is confidence.

So, if you're unsure about your maths skills, have a go. If you're already confident, try it anyway and encourage others. Mention it at work, to friends, at your child's school. Get the school to sign up as a Challenge school.

Here, on the National Numeracy Family Maths Toolkit, there's more information on how you can help your children learn. And if you want to know more about how your children are learning maths at school, there are links to a lot of information on that too. In Wales they've been trying a What you say counts campaign to encourage parents to be positive about maths. As a Jones, I have to salute the Welsh for taking the lead in this. We need the same throughout the UK – a commitment not to say negative things about maths in front of your children – ever.