Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Why Times Tables Don't Equal Success

I have a confession to make.

I don't know most of my times tables.

I know, shock horror, right?

I know what you're thinking.

I'm probably a bit of a down-and-out, who barely scraped enough GCSEs to get into further education. I probably never went to uni. I have probably worked a minimum wage job my entire life. I've probably never travelled. Never lived away from the town I grew up in. In fact, my life probably reflects the generational cycle that society has stuck me in where my entire family lives off the state and no one in living memory has ever worked a day in their life.


Because, you know, that's what happens if you don't know your times tables by the age of 11, isn't it?

What if I told you, that actually, I managed to take my GCSE maths a year early and get a B?

What if I told you, I then took the higher paper in year 11, and also got a... B?

In fact, what if I told you that the lowest GCSE grade that I got, out of 11 qualifications, was a... B?

This isn't to brag, I'm merely making a point.

You see, I just can't do mental arithmetic. I can't.

You throw a sum at me, of any kind, and I will just hear a jumble of numbers, my brain freezes, I panic and I can't think of the answer. Under pressurised or timed conditions, the effect is even worse. I've always been this way.

Trigonometry, I can could do.

Pythagoras Theorem, I can could do.

Algebra? Well, once I understood that x was merely a missing number - I could work that out.

Just, you know, give me a couple of hours. And don't ask me to do any of these things 15 years later. I don't remember squat.

My husband? Well, he's a grammar school genius. Give him any sum under the sun (seriously, test him) and he'll throw the answer back at you in seconds. His mental arithmetic is, well, sharp. Did he get a B at GCSE maths? No. You know why? The teacher only entered him in for the intermediate paper, meaning the highest grade he could achieve was a C (why all grammar school pupils are not put in for the higher paper is beyond me!). Is he waaayyy better at maths than I am? Of course he is! Does he know his times tables? Of course he does!

I'm not saying that kids shouldn't learn them, and that maths is a skill no longer required. I'm just saying we shouldn't judge our kids, our teachers or our schools on the basis that all children know their times tables by the age of 11. Should they? Yes. Will all kids meet this standard? No.

Even though my mental maths is atrocious. Even though my understanding of numbers and mathematical principles is astonishingly bad. Even though I only know my five times tables if I count the sequence on my fingers....

...My teacher believed in my limited abilities enough to take a chance on the higher paper and somehow I managed to get a B in the end - a grade which wouldn't have been available to me had I done the intermediate paper. (Whether you think GCSE exams should be harder is a debate for another day!)

And that's what we need. Not more tests. Not more pressure before our kids even enter secondary school. Not more criticism for our teachers who work damn hard to ready every kid for the big wide world. We need teachers who believe in our kids enough to take a chance on them.

And we need them to know that they will not fail at life if they can't recite every times table by heart.

Because I haven't failed. I might not be able to recite my times tables, and I've never been able to do that. But I did get 11 GCSEs (A*-B). I did get three A-Levels (A-C). I did go to university and get a 2:1 degree. I did work in my chosen field for a number of years and was good at what I did.

But you know what my biggest success is?

My daughter.

And at two years old, she doesn't know her times tables either!

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