The Trouble With Maths

24/02/2014 14:36 | Updated 22 May 2015

Child doing mathsRex

Maths. How does that word make you feel? Do you squirm when you remember how you struggled with simultaneous equations at school, do you reach for the calculator the moment you have to find a percentage, and does your child's maths homework leave you feeling totally inadequate? If so, you are not alone.

According to a recent survey, 49 per cent of adults do not have good enough maths skills to cope day-to-day, because their maths ability is no better than an eleven year old's.

A survey of 10 to 16 year olds found that two thirds would rather struggle with maths in lessons or at home, without asking for help.


And even if they did ask for help, would their parents measure up? Not according to the survey which found that one fifth of parents felt they couldn't help their children, and two thirds were not comfortable with the maths methods taught in schools today.


So what is going wrong? I admit to not enjoying maths, or rather arithmetic, at school. I could blame my teachers who were pretty uninspiring, and once I'd lost the plot I didn't catch up again.

I began to regard maths as difficult - and no one was going to persuade me otherwise, not even my father who taught maths part time. But I had to change my mind during my teacher training; maths was compulsory.

I buckled down and found not only did I understand maths now, but I was even quite good at it. How had this transformation happened? I believe it was my attitude that had changed.

But is it possible that children are being turned off maths by their parents' negative experiences of it? Julia told me, "I hated maths and was hopeless at it- having a totally unsympathetic teacher at secondary school didn't help. I took the precaution of marrying someone who is good at maths, so between us we cover the children's homework questions. My children like to show-off their maths skills to me and I am always wildly impressed which may boost their self –esteem."

Michelle's experience shows that schools do recognise the impact that parents' experiences can have on their children. Michelle has a daughter at primary school. "Her head teacher has stressed that we must try never to be negative about maths in front of our children, or say things like 'I was rubbish at maths'."

Hollie admits she hates maths and struggles with the basics. "I am a bad example. I go out of my way to avoid helping with it, and my standard response is 'Ask dad', which is terrible."

Alice's experience of how maths was taught is common amongst many parents. "I hated maths because I had a non-specialist teacher for some of the time and then a teacher who was only interested in helping pupils who were good at the subject. I was petrified of the subject but in my job I analyse data and number crunch - and it's not as bad as I thought! However, my daughter does turn to her dad when she needs help with maths."

One thing has changed: how maths is taught. Schools are aware of this and many hold sessions where they explain the changes to parents. Jayne's children's school is one. "They hold PACT workshops (Parents and Children Together) where they cover different subjects and how topics are taught."

The changing methods of teaching maths are certainly an obstacle for many parents. Jennifer says, "In my daughter's school they no longer teach long division they way I had to learn it, so in some ways I feel out of my depth trying to help Fleur, but the new methods also seem easier for her compared with how I was taught."

Confidence plays a huge part in understanding maths. Anne found this. "I had a real block on maths at school and absolutely hated it. My parents found me a fabulous tutor and I really enjoyed the subject. However, my son hates maths and, although I have no firm evidence, I do think one of his teachers might not have been so good with this subject. He has a real block on it and he now goes to extra maths lessons called NumberWorks which are brilliant. He likes it because it's very much computer based."

It looks as if maths teaching has changed a lot since most parents were at school. But many children still struggle with it.


British children now rank 28th in the world amongst their peers for maths skills. There is a direct correlation between good maths qualifications and a higher income, as an adult.


Anne reflects on a conversation she had with a friend who said, "My son is good at literacy but poor at numeracy - and I'm relieved it's that way round."

But Anne disagrees: "I do think the pride we have in this country about being innumerate is very misplaced."

And why are so many of us poor at numeracy? Poor teaching, a negative attitude, or parents' unable to be involved with and understanding new teaching methods?

What is your experience?

For advice on how to give your child a positive experience of maths, log on to National Numeracy.

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