An open letter to an Education Department on the subject of Maths…

Dear Education Department,

My son is nearly 18 and yesterday he got a C at AS level Maths, in a tough year which left many of his hard working friends in tears as they collected their results.  For Fraser, this represented a significant victory over an enemy which has besieged him since he was nine years old.  That enemy is Maths and your Gifted and Talented programme was responsible for collapsing his confidence in a subject which, up to that point, he’d been mastering fine.

If Fraser has an innate gift, it might be for relationships, though I tend to credit honest parenting in a Thinking Environment for that.  It’s not for Maths, but it’s easy to see how he got chosen in a rush of assumptions generated by blunt data:  at seven years old he was a bright working-class boy from a single parent family, he probably has ADHD***, what can we do to stop him going off the rails?  Let’s put him on a Gifted and Talented Programme!  

He did fine, at first.  It was good for him to be with kids from other schools across the Borough; we talked through why he was doing ‘extra’ Maths (rather than the English he loved).  It was a bit embarrassing to be one of a small band of ‘swots’ getting picked up from school in a taxi on a Wednesday lunchtime but, as I’ve said, Fraser is good at relationships and claimed he could manoeuvre round the teasing (or was he just protecting his mum?  I used to deliberately fail tests at school to avoid being bullied for being bright).  The Maths was OK, it clashed a bit with the way they did things at school but we went together to the parent training sessions and, between us, we figured it out.

Then came the World Class Maths Test.  No warning for this; Fraser came home one Wednesday and said they’d done this test and it was really hard but it was brilliant that he’d had chance to compete with the best Maths brains in the whole world.  He was to be awarded his certificate at a big Maths event at a world-renowned Science Centre.  He was really excited about this. Bless him for believing the spin.  Bless his mum for falling for it too.  I’d had my doubts about the values of the programme; I started to feel rather impressed.

At the Science Centre we saw hundreds of families from across the Borough:  the large auditorium was packed, refreshments were provided, there was a huge ‘Ta-Dah!’ about the night. Interestingly, as I’m writing this eight years later, I’m realising how much it must have all cost…

The occasion was so impressive that even his dad turned up.  

Fraser had been whisked to one side on entrance, so we waited expectantly in our seats. Big (boring) build up and then the children started to come nervously onto the big stage to cheers and applause, one by one stepping into the light…to be told they had FAILED.

There was a stunned silence.  Someone led the applause which rose to music festival levels of noise.  I was half out of my seat, not sure I’d heard what I’d heard, but couldn’t push past the clapping automatons to either side of me.  Plus I was not on form.  I was due in hospital for a major operation the following day.  It would be different now.  I’ve always regretted not kicking off on the night, though Fraser would have died a thousand deaths, no doubt.  Why did no-one protest? Because teachers know best?  Because we are culturally oppressed by the thought of anything to do with Maths? Why might that be?

I collected my child, who had the class not to cry and was clearly shocked to the core.  We went home via Pizza Hut but I knew the damage had been done.  The next day, from my hospital bed, I rang the Gifted and Talented organiser but her only interest was self-justification.  She’d clearly not spotted any sobbing nine-year-olds the previous evening.  “It’s an honour just to be entered,” she boomed, drowning out my protests.  “That test was GCSE level!”  A level at which sixteen year olds study.  My son was nine.  What on earth did they hope to achieve?

What they did achieve was this:  Fraser’s Maths confidence collapsed.  From that point onwards, he identified himself as ‘rubbish at Maths’ and, surprise surprise, what happened?  His Maths results nosedived.  The vicious cycle began.  Within months he was moaning about Maths class. He was being sent home with remedial homework, which he tried very hard not to do.  Once aloof, he was colluding in the ‘Maths is crap/I’m crap at Maths’ discourses which dominate our society. As he moved up to secondary school and befriended ‘sciences’ students, he endured teasing about his ‘less academic’ achievements in English, History, Drama, Art, even Biology.  He was so bright that no-one could bear to move him down a set in Maths, so he trailed at the bottom of the class, afraid to say he didn’t understand, compounding his lack of confidence and self-esteem. It didn’t help that his Maths teacher was afraid of teenagers…I queued for longer and longer at the Maths’ desks on Parents’ Evening, to no avail.

When Fraser was fourteen, there was a new face at the end of the queue.  Ms Perrin (now a hero of mine) smiled at Fraser and said, all that’s wrong with you is your confidence. Encouraged by her warmth, I found myself telling her the Gifted and Talented story, and Fraser’s Maths rehabilitation began.  

It took nothing but faith.  Ms Perrin’s faith in Fraser and ours, increasingly, in her.  There was no extra remedial homework, just an open door policy across a newly reorganised team and a willingness to revisit (without eye-rolling) some of the very basics Fraser had missed in his post-Science Centre panic, such as fractions and percentages.  Maths began to be enjoyable again. Popping into the Maths staffroom to check out a problem opened up a world of nerdy teachers in the Big Bang Theory mould, who were funny and entertaining and genuinely loved their subject. An opportunity arose to sit a Further Maths paper and Fraser happily signed up (so did the teachers: at a school with no sixth form it was an opportunity to stretch their own brains by teaching higher, deeper stuff).

In 2013, Fraser picked up his GCSE results.  A in Maths.  B in Further Maths.

Emboldened by this and with the purchase of a Maths Geek mug safely on its way to the inspirational Ms Perrin, Fraser changed his A-level choices.  The enemy was defeated.  Time for a bit of showboating.

This year has been hard.  Statistics made some sense (Fraser taught it to me as part of his revision, undoing 30 years’ fear of the Big E).  Something mysterious called ‘Core 2’ was a tougher gig.  And he’s known for months that his Maths journey would end this year, as he focuses on the three A-levels he needs, to get into University.  But that ‘C’ grade finally tells him what he needs to know – that he’s beaten the Auld Enemy.

I’ve learned lots as a parent, not least about the strength and wisdom of my son.  As an educator, I’ve learned lots more.

Assumptions …Fraser has never been gifted and talented in Maths, though he’s always been competent, even during the years when his confidence was so low he couldn’t see it.  He was selected for that Gifted and Talented programme on the basis of assumptions made about working-class boys from single parent families****  Stop it now.

Failure …never ends well.  What on earth is happening when students of any age are recruited to programmes, in which they are not expected to succeed?  It’s never about the learning, for sure. Unfortunately, raising the participation age to 18 has exacerbated this problem and I’ve heard plenty of horror stories this year, of students enrolled on courses then just left to serve time.  It is condescending and quite frankly wrong, to think that ‘failure’ (rather than making and learning from mistakes) is ever a good thing.  There was nothing put in place to mitigate the impact of failure on primary-age children who have only ever succeeded before.

Teaching …is about relationships.  It’s about listening and encouraging.  It’s about appreciation, appropriate information, and space to learn.  It’s about ease, not panic.  (All these things are components of a Thinking Environment).  As Carol Dweck attests, learning happens when student and teacher have a growth mindset, which is exactly what the Maths Department  provided for Fraser. Eventually.

Remedial …is a word which should have no place in education.  Successive Governments’ approach to Maths literacy have assumed a deficit model, when what they should have been doing is bring joyousness to the teaching of Maths.  If you don’t think this can be done, talk to Ms Perrin (or Caz Roberts and David Jones at The Northern College) or find out about Simon Singh.  Use the carrot not the stick:  when people lack confidence in Maths it’s because a) we are culturally conditioned to think Maths is hard and b) they’ve had confidence knocked out of them by poor policy and poor teaching.  And while you’re at it, funders, don’t use coaching or observations as remedial actions either.  Nothing good will happen if you do.  

Fraser will be fine, but no thanks to you and your half-baked ideas, un-named Education Department. I could probably expose the money you spent on the Science Centre Fiasco in 2006 but no Freedom of Information Request could quantify the harm that you did.  Education needs to change because over the years, its values have become somewhat faulty and its judgement sometimes skewed.  On my own, I don’t know how to do this, but as parents, educators and confreres in a Community of Praxis, I’m absolutely certain that we can work it out.

***He hasn’t, but his mum has.

****Fraser also got 3 As at AS level, so you didn’t need to stereotype him.  He can go to the University of his choice, to study the subject that most fascinates him.  No doubt, when he gets there, he will continue to confound the assumptions of those around him.

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Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

2 thoughts on “An open letter to an Education Department on the subject of Maths…”

  1. Lou Thank you so much for for sharing this angry, passionate, reflective caring story with us. It reminds me of why we work as teacher educators and frankly as a person also challenged by Maths and poor teaching when I was at school – it made me cry

  2. Thank you Lou. What also saddens me is the knowledge that nobody at the department for education will read this, or if they do, I can’t imagine that they will reflect on the damage that is still being done to children throughout their school lives. I have a similar story about Gifted and Talented – so your post has brought back memories of a child who learned very quickly about the cynical exploitation of young people by those who were supposed to have her best interests at heart.

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