Politely Affronted

Have you ever written to the (UK) government? Or your MP? I've done it a handful of times over the years - to praise, suggest and critique. There's a specialized genre of reply you get. I'd call it 'politely affronted': 'Have you not seen what we're doing? Do you not realise how much money in real terms we're throwing at this?'

Last time I wrote I asked about support for headteachers. I asked my MP if he could support me to do more to support them. The reply (politely affronted) stated what was already in place and how much cash had already been trebucheted over the wall. And in a curious break with style, the final line of the reply asked, 'what more do you think we should do?'

There's a finality to official replies; even with an invitation to continue the conversation. Acknowledge the challenge; put in a scheme, a service, a resource; give it a GBP value - then move on to the next letter. 'You spoke, we listened.' Banks do it, don't they. Albeit with ukuleles, flutes and perfectly diverse representative customers. You said local branches; we listened, gave you each an app. How more local do you want it?

Carol Vorderman

Not sure if I can be bothered to write to PM Rishi about maths. Earlier this week he re-unveiled Carol Vorderman's grand plan from 2011: mandatory maths to 18 so citizens are better prepared to function globally and to challenge a gas bill. If it happens at all, our budding poets, musicians, linguists and sportspeople will be spared (until 2025) what they may perceive as torture .

However, I do speak as a lover of maths. Not numeracy - I struggle with that - but Mathematics. I studied engineering to masters level and before switching to education applied my learning on behalf of a global defence company. The maths made sense. It existed in my designs. Then it got built, I could pick it up and see its use in the real world.

I wish everyone could see maths for what it is, to feel its beauty, notice its patterns, its puzzles. To be empowered by its 'wrong' answers not destroyed by them, to know its relevance, to use it as a tool for reframing life, work and learning. To see its connection to every other domain, subject, topic, theme.

How Much Maths?

I once taught GCSE maths key skills to budding social workers. I had 4 sessions with each group of these wonderfully dedicated people. We spent 2 sessions undoing the mathematico-emotional damage inflicted at school and 2 sessions doing the maths. These were value-led professionals who'd been caught off guard discovering that they needed long division and basic algebra in order to support a family in crisis or protect a highly vulnerable child. I learned that the real issue was not how much maths you do (will 2 more years really make the intended difference?) but how you do maths and how you think about it. And how we think about it is largely determined by how everyone else thinks about it. By the culture around maths, by what society subtly says.

Dumbed Down Caps

Here's an illustrative case. The energy price cap. It's mathematically dumbed down by an insidious assumption that citizens can't multiply. Or won't know they have to. A low mathematical expectation is embedded. Here's how that works:

At the time of writing this (early Jan 2023), the UK OFGEM price cap is £4,279. Gut reaction: how on earth will I find that money? Do I have to give up Spotify, Netflix, food? But this figure is not the cap. The cap is placed on the unit price of energy - the cost of a daily fixed standing charge and a unit cost per KWh. These are the costs that are capped, not the total bill. That 4 grand comes from assumptions about 'average annual household usage'.

The capped standing and unit costs are multiplied by this 'average use' to produce the headline grabbing £4,279. But initially everyone looks at that figure and thinks it's theirs. In reality, some folks will pay more than that and some less.

But why aren't the standing and unit costs - the figures which are actually capped - the leading story? This story -

"From 1 January the equivalent per unit level of the price cap to the nearest pence for a typical customer paying by direct debit will be 67p per kWh for electricity customers and a standing charge of 46p per day. The equivalent per unit level for a typical gas customer is 17p per kWh with a standing charge of 28p per day."

To change how maths is seen, felt, regarded, I'd add, 'You will need to multiply these figures by your anticipated usage to find your likely annual or monthly bill. Remember, you did this at school. Primary school. You were good at it. Mr Jones said so.'

A Maths Manifesto

I could cite more examples, stories of maths as a punishment, maths as exclusive and divisive, maths as anxiety or terror. Anecdotes that confirm the embedded view that maths is hard and something other people are good at. Instead, here's an idea. It costs nothing, it doesn't need a scheme or a plan or a resource. All it needs is a global change of expectation and attitude:

When we write about maths or talk about maths or think about maths - whether we are maths lovers or not - think about it, write about it, talk about it WITHOUT judgement but WITH positive expectation. Not as a subject that only some can do, not as the preserve of the nerdy or geeky, but as a necessary, universal experience with which each person will engage in their own way.

Language belongs to us all. Maths belongs to us all, and if the cultural expectations around (and of) maths shift then we won't need to impose more maths; pupils will end up choosing more of it.