…we’re getting cleverer!

Way back in the dim and distant I took my Maths ‘o’ level. June…1982 to be exact. I failed…quite impressively with an ‘e’. In fact I failed a lot of my nine ‘o’ levels. Something to do with discovering ‘sex and drugs and rock and roll’ at precisely the wrong time…or something.

But all was not lost…I re-sat the ‘o’ level in the November of 1982 and scraped in with a ‘c’ grade. Not bad…. from an e to a c in 5 months. I suspect I did some revision second time round.

Since then, I’ve claimed that mathematics isn’t within my mental comfort zone…I got a bit phobic about numbers….I’ve toyed with the idea of dyscalculia.

So anyway…. a few months ago I got me a boyfriend… he’s a smart cookie…he can do maths, works with numbers…did a physics degree. A couple of times in the early days we touched on maths and I told him I couldn’t do ‘it’. I think it puzzled him…the thought that someone couldn’t cope with numbers…. but then… he claims to be bad at art and I can’t understand that…people are different.

We visited the Tate Modern…becuase I like art and he’d like to understand it more and I started asking questions about maths. I have a curious mind and like to know about stuff…. especially if that stuff is important to someone close to me. The first time we attempted maths together was in the car….slowly…tentatively…. I was understanding small things and but being a visual learner needed to see it on paper.

So when we got home we continued over a mug of tea and the back of an envelope….until I burst into tears in the sheer frustration of not being able to understand something.

I just couldn’t get it.

The real turning point came when he told me he’d described me to his colleagues as virtually innumerate…and that’s not a ‘bad’ thing. I’m arty and creative and smart in so many ways – we can’t all be good at everything.

But it niggled me.

So… I asked him to tell me about numbers. We touched briefly on lots of things…a lot of it clever, interesting things like Fibonacci and Pi and then becuase I remember enjoying it at school we had a couple of back of the envelope sessions looking at algebra. We’re looking at a few ten minute sessions over maybe a month…a month in which we only see each other at weekends.

Then I had the idea of seeing how much I actually ‘could’ remember from school, 31 years ago. So I sat down with the computer and did a Foundation level gcse in maths…. I can’t remember how I did…but it was quite well….

I then realised that there was more to the exam system than I thought (and bear in mind I’ve had a daughter and a step daughter go through these exams less than five years ago).

In the olden days there was O levels and cse’s. If you were clever you did the former…otherwise you did the latter and if you were lucky you could get an A grade at cse which was worth an O level. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to double up with cse’s in my weak subjects as I’d skipped a year at school (I was THAT bright) and you had to be older than 15years and 6months old to do them…whereas any child prodigy could have a bash at O levels.

Nowadays…I ‘thought’ there was a GCSe and if you got ABC it was like getting an O level and maybe DE was a cse…an F surely still stands for fail. I ‘thought’ it was that simple… but no. There’s a Foundation level paper in which you can get CD or E and a Higher paper in which you gain an AB or C. I guess on your exam certificate it states Higher or Foundation….so it is a lot more like the old system than I thought… we’re just led to believe that all children are clever enough to sit the same exam nowadays. Admittedly there is a cross over of questions in the two papers…the harder Foundation questions being the easier Higher ones. I believe theres much deliberation amongst teachers over which paper to put their students in for to attain the magical percentage of grade A* to Cs.

So anyway… I thought I’d have a bash at the Higher paper seeing as I’d gained some confidence on the Foundation one.

I gave myself exam conditions and the right amount of time and sat the first of two Higher Edexel GCSE papers from June 2013. As an aside its interesting to note that each paper I sat was worth 100 marks…. so markers don’t even have to be able to work out a percentage from 96 out of 116.

With some dim memories, some working day to day experience of simple mathematics, some guesswork and a few kitchen table back of envelope sessions I scored 60 out of 100. I was pretty pleased with that and thought it was probably a decent C grade.

No… presuming I’d get the same on paper 2 I doubled my score from paper 1 to make 120 (see…I can do it). That gave me a B grade..not just a B grade but a fairly decent B grade.

Riding high on a wave of mathematical success and with a quick flip through Paper 2 from my other half who’s only last minute tutoring consisted of ‘what on earth is a leaf and stem diagram – lets look it up’…I settled down a couple of days later and completed the second paper.

It was harder…. mostly becuase it was the ‘calculator allowed’ paper and the only calculator I had to hand was the simple one on my phone, so I wasted time trying to work out square roots by trial and error and had no chance of pressing a sine(?) button…good job really as I suspect I’d have needed a calculator refresher session. There was some stuff that totally stumped me..some algebra (expanding and simplifying but no quadratic equations that i could see) and a lot more simple mathematics.

I scored 40 out of 100.

It felt like a paper I should have failed….

Over both papers I scored 100 out of 200 marks. That is still a B grade.

So at O level…after many years of maths lessons and a two year intensive run up to my exams….I got a C on my second attempt.

At the age of 46, after years of being a stay at home mum who is adverse to numbers and still has a head that feels like its still part filled with post chemo porridge I got a B.

We are ALL ‘definitely’ getting cleverer.

Or not.

NB. For a comparison here’s some old papers …I looked at the 1988 paper and the very sight of it scared the crap out of me.

Well done! I have personally given up on maths. Maybe I should give it a go, because after all maths is useful and interesting and the tool of theoretical research into all sorts of fascinating things.

If you can do it, so can I. Except that perhaps you have more determination to succeed.

Lucy