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Maths: "..a code to save the world, not a confusing sum"

15 Sep 2017

Flora Davis

When I was little, not much sound would come from my bedroom; when my mum came and checked on me, she’d find me sitting in the middle of my bedroom carpet surrounded by a big pile of books. I loved books. I would sit for hours, finishing one and starting another, creating a fortress of paperbacks around me. But one thing I couldn’t stand was numbers.

No matter how hard I tried, times tables would never stick in my head. I remember my mum sitting next to me, holding a ‘times tables cube’ but even with the ‘easy’ five times table, I just found myself searching in a blank space in my head for answers. All I’d see was white space. Frustration would build, my hands would clench into fists and I became angry at myself. If other children could remember them, why couldn't I?


just the word made me feel sick

Worst of all were maths lessons - I dreaded them more than swimming classes and I used to really hate swimming. I’d feel my stomach twisting in knots as the teacher swapped our yellow Literacy books for blue Numeracy books - just the word made me feel sick. The digits didn’t  jump up and down on the page or look different - they just felt foreign and scary, and the answers were completely out of reach. Numbers seemed abstract and didn’t make sense - when did one number end and get to the next number? I didn’t get it. A sheet of sums would send panic tearing through me, my brain would freeze up completely and none of the numbers made sense. I always hoped we’d just spend the lesson with a sheet of questions. Then I could sit next to my friends who wouldn’t mind me copying or tell the teacher and no one would notice how ‘stupid’ I was like they did when we were randomly picked to stand up and give an answer - something that made my heart hammer in my chest and my palms sweat until a friend would finally whisper the answer to me.  The teachers never noticed though, and so I glided through lessons with ticks and stickers for years, despite the fact that I still didn’t know how to multiply and divide, or even read a clock.

I moved schools in Year Four, and in my nicer new school, they quickly noticed my difficulties with numbers, but also realised it was down to anxiety.  At my new school, as long as you were doing your best, they didn’t make a fuss if you weren’t at the “right” level. I started at the beginning again, back to some of the basics I’d never understood, and things began to click a little more, not entirely, but a little. The teachers didn’t mind if the ten minutes were up and I hadn’t finished all the questions, because as long as I was trying by myself they were happy. Something that always stuck in my mind, was a piece of advice from my headteacher on the day of Year Six SATs - “Smile at the test and the test will smile back at you”. It meant that if you always relax and literally smile at the test, you’ll do far better than if you panic.

I began to feel less like a student doing maths and more like Ruby Redfort or James Bond - it was a code to save the world, not a confusing sum

In secondary school I had an amazing maths teacher who made me see that if you can understand the methods, then maths doesn’t have to be scary. If you take your time and try to learn each step (I always found it more comprehensible when broken down into steps) then it becomes like a pattern or a code. I began to feel less like a student doing maths and more like Ruby Redfort or James Bond - it was a code to save the world, not a confusing sum. My teacher recommended that for difficult methods we keep checking the example when doing the questions and that we should take it slowly and carefully. This was a great comfort to me, as I couldn’t do questions without directly following the example until I became confident in the method. It almost became fun when I understood things as it was like trying to put together parts of a puzzle; getting the answer proved I’d put in all the right pieces - it made me feel good. My teacher would never be cross or laugh if we asked for help, and would only laugh at me in Maths Clinic when I tried to liken multiplying on a probability tree to squirrels falling off branches in Sleeping Beauty (which even I would agree is a strange concept).

This year I took my Mathematics iGCSE feeling as close to calm as I could get because I knew I’d practised the methods I needed. When I got my results and saw I’d got an ‘A’ grade, I wanted to cry; when I was younger I wasn’t sure I’d ever even be able to pass a maths GCSE. It wasn’t my best grade, but it is the one I am most proud of. I’m happy not to be continuing maths this year, but I also feel as if my maths journey has been a life lesson; something big might seem scary, but if you break it down into steps, you realise it’s just lots of little achievable things that add up to make one big thing.


Flora Davies, age 16; her mother, Kate Brian, reconnected with us following an interview in 2012 for her article on maths anxiety in The Guardian, proud to share the news of Flora's outstanding achievement.