Back to School (or not!)

This has definitely been the strangest school summer holiday I can remember!

Too many things to catch up with, owing to the Covid-19 recommendations; no holiday in the sun (although the British weather hasn’t been too bad); lots of anxious parents asking me to help their children with maths they’ve missed during home-schooling; and never knowing which day of the week it is.

How about you? I hope you managed to get a bit of a break, at least.

The return to school for the autumn term is quickly approaching, along with all the concerns and uncertainties surrounding that: ‘Will my child go back to school?’ ‘Is there any point buying new school shoes and uniform?’ ‘Will my child have fallen behind?’

And if you have a child starting secondary school, that’s probably just one more source of anxiety you could do without.

I don’t have the solutions to these concerns, unfortunately. What I do have, however, are FREE MATHS TUTORIAL VIDEOS that you can access, should your child need to review some aspects of the curriculum before their return to school.

As a rule, all year groups in primary schools begin the autumn term with units on Number and Place Value, so I am giving FREE access to all videos in that section until 30th September 2020.

Whatever aspect of Place Value your child needs help with …

  • understanding the base-10 place value system
  • counting in steps of 10, 100 and 1,000
  • reading and writing numbers (in numerals and in words)
  • identifying the value of digits in multi-digit numbers
  • reading and writing Roman numerals
  • rounding numbers
  • understanding how to calculate with negative numbers

 … you can access those videos FREE by subscribing to my monthly newsletter (which gives regular access to free videos, news and special offers).

I’ve also added FREE access to Algebra videos for those of you who have children about to start Year 7 (Algebraic Notation is a popular first topic at secondary school.)

When you sign up, you’ll receive an email that includes links to units relevant to specific year groups (Year 3 up to Year 7); just click the tab for your child’s new year group to see which areas of maths they are likely to be working on in September – each unit with a direct link to the videos that will be most relevant for that unit.

There is a Voucher Code at the top of each document – this means you can get the recommended videos FREE at the checkout.

I am currently busy making worksheets to accompany each video in these sections, and these can be accessed through the link within each video.

*      Current subscribers to my newsletter can currently get access to ALL videos ABSOILUTELY FREE until 2nd September 2020.

This is a special offer I set up at the beginning of the summer to help with the concerns surrounding Covid-19 and home-schooling.

There’s a link here to sign up and receive vouchers

if you’d like to take advantage of this before the offer ends!

Visit to see what’s been added since your last visit, and use your voucher at the checkout to get FREE videos until 30th September.

Are you worrying about what your child has missed in maths this year?

Stop it now!

It is true that the work sent from schools has varied in quantity and quality, and whether you feel your child’s school has or hasn’t sent enough (or has sent too much!) this won’t necessarily determine how much or how little your child has learned since March.

Many parents, whatever their circumstances, have found it stressful trying to be parent and teacher to their children, all whilst trying to keep going with other commitments, such as working, looking after pre-school children, caring for relatives, trying hard not to swear in front of the kids, … far too many scenarios to list them all.

I’m hearing parents lamenting their struggles: ‘Am I spending enough time helping my child with school work?’ ‘Is my lack of knowledge holding them back?’ ‘Are they watching too much TV?’ ‘Am I a bad parent if I admit that my children are getting on my nerves?’

Rest assured, if these are your concerns, you’re not alone. Your child won’t be the only child in their class who hasn’t studied conscientiously from 9am until 3pm every week day. And they certainly won’t be the only child whose parent has had a panic attack when asked about long division or ratios!

Yes, there will be some whose parents have employed online tutors, and who have insisted that their children study the hours they would have done at school, and who post on social media how wonderful life as a home-schooling parent is, and leaving the rest of us feeling like failures. But unless those parents are qualified teachers with nothing to do other than home-school, there’s a pretty good chance their children will still need lots of help once they return to the classroom.

If you’re still worried and would like your children to brush-up on the maths they may have missed over the summer, I’m sending those who have signed up to my email newsletter a summary for each year group in Key Stage 2  (years 3, 4, 5 and 6) of the maths topics usually covered in class from March onwards. Each summary includes a voucher code for FREE access to the tutorial videos on my website over the summer, as well as time-saving links to those videos that are most relevant for each area of maths in the summary.

If you would like to access these FREE tutorials, click to sign up and I will email a voucher code for you to access FREE videos all summer.

If, however, you’d rather forget about home-schooling and have a break – no one here will blame you!

Here’s wishing everyone a great summer – try to have a break, and here’s to a better September!

Ten Tips for Keeping Kids Busy During Lockdown

Are you finding your children’s lockdown schoolwork uninspiring? Education is about so much more than completing worksheets.

This is a difficult time for us all, and we often forget how children will internalise their anxieties and imagine all kinds of things.

Your priority really is to encourage your child to talk to you about any worries they have, whether they’re about the virus itself and how it could affect your family, or worries about their learning and progress.

Some children will need space and to feel safe before they can even think about school work, and that’s fine. Let them play; let them be creative in a way that suits them, whether that’s reading books or comics, writing stories, organising their Lego collection, baking, learning to code – anything they choose to do themselves that they wouldn’t usually have time to do.

Other children thrive on a routine where they know what they’ll be doing and when – pretty much how it works at school – and that’s often harder for parents as they now have to become teachers as well as nurturers.

From the information I get from the parents I speak to, it would seem there’s a huge range of expectations and resources from schools: from the excellent to the non-existent; from the barely any work at all to the ‘How the hell do they expect us to get through this lot?’

Whichever camp your child falls into, there are activities that are fun yet meaningful, and often far better in educational terms than most of what they’ll do in school. (Cough! – Fronted adverbials – cough!)

Here are my top-ten suggestions for activities your child can do that are fun but also educationally meaningful (obviously age, ability and access to resources will determine some of these).

1 Baking cup-cakes

This involves reading the ingredients and following a recipe (English) as well as weighing the ingredients (maths).

If you want to get really educational, you can get your child to identify the imperative verbs in the instructions (Mix the butter and sugar; Beat the eggs). You could also get them to make fewer or more than the recipe suggests, and get them to work out how much of each ingredient they now need (Ratio and Proportion)

Why do we need this many eggs? What might happen if we forgot to put them in?

What does self-raising flour have that plain flour doesn’t? Why does that make the cakes rise? (Science)

As we add each ingredient, can we get it back to its original state? (Science – materials/ states of matter)

If we want one third of the cakes with pink icing, how many is that? (Fractions)

Can we put the cakes on the plate in a symmetrical pattern? (maths – symmetry)

Of course, you might just want to make cakes for the sheer pleasure of doing so, and of scoffing them later: that’s what they’re for, after all!

2 Writing a Journal

One day soon (I hope) this lockdown will be a distant memory, but as with the Spanish Flu over 100 years ago, it will be remembered. A journal setting out how your family is affected each day is a future child’s history book, so why shouldn’t your child be the one to write it?

This can include everything, from the mundane (‘Got up at 7.30, had breakfast, had a shower, got dressed, exercised with Joe Wickes …’) to the bizarre (‘I notice that next-door’s cats aren’t following the social distancing rules …’). From the amusing (‘Mum’s starting to sound so much like my teacher I called her “Miss” today!) to the concerning (‘Today’s announcement from Westminster is that we have to be in lockdown for at least another three weeks. This is causing a lot of problems for people’s jobs and for schools.’)

This exercise has more than just the academic qualities: it can also be a way for your child to express their feelings and worries, and a way for parents to tap into topics children don’t know how to articulate.

And children who don’t enjoy writing can do this using drawings, with short written descriptions beneath, or even recording their own videos.

3      Burying a Time Capsule

Linked to point #2, how about items (or photos of items) that showcase life in the year 2020?

This doesn’t have to be virus-related – it could be anything your child considers to be an important part of their life. Photos of family members and pets; information about their school; poems about their friends …

What questions would they ask about the lives of people in the past? Use those to inform what they would place in their capsule. Let them use their imaginations.

4 Write Their Autobiography

Get your child to find out about how their parents met (obviously, only if that tale is appropriate!) and how their life was at the beginning. What was going on in the locality at the time of their birth? What was going on in the world? Which song was number one in the music charts? Which was the biggest film of that year?

It’s likely there will be lots of photos, and if you have the tech to copy some of those to go into the biography, that makes it much more enjoyable (although children’s own illustrations are important too).

Share stories about their first milestones: first words, when they walked, TV shows they enjoyed. Share amusing anecdotes about things they did: took clothes off in front of visitors; burped loudly at a church wedding; said a word they shouldn’t have said in front of granny. (I’m basing this on my own kids!)

Who was their first nursery or school friend? How was their first day at school? Which foods/ songs/ clothes did they love?

Where are they now? Did they overcome that fear of school? Did they achieve that swimming certificate? Are they still playing that sport or musical instrument?

5      Compile a Family History

It’s amazing how many of us don’t share the interesting details of our child’s heritage with them: as an adult, I am discovering things about my parents I wish I’d known years ago, and can’t think why they never talked about some of the amazing stuff they’ve lived through. Clearly, they thought it was boring. It isn’t!

If your child is able to speak regularly on the phone or via video chat with other family members – particularly grandparents – they can conduct some great interviews and gather information about their families that they normally wouldn’t think to ask.

Was Grandma a Beatles’ Fan? Did Granddad have any weird hairstyles? What clothes did they wear? What music did they listen to? What were their schools like? (Children love hearing about how teachers in the ‘olden days’ beat their pupils!) What jobs did they do when they left school? How did they entertain themselves?

What was going on in the world when their grandparents were young? What can their grandparents tell them about their own parents’ history? And children love hearing stories about their own parents as children – the more embarrassing, the better!

This could lead to the creation of a family tree, and it doesn’t just have to be the children who enjoy this.

 6      Design a Flower Bed/ Window Box

It’s not particularly easy to get hold of seeds and plants at the moment, but that doesn’t have to stop you designing how you’d like your garden or window box to look once this is over.

This activity can be as creative as your child wishes: simply drawing colourful plants on paper, arranging them into patterns (maths); investigating which kinds of plants are best to grow in particular areas or types of soil (science); even comparing the Latin names for plants with the more popular names (languages).

7      Playing Card Games/ Board Games

You can use ordinary packs of cards, or ones that your child makes. They can feature colours, shapes, numbers, or even just the ordinary pictures on playing cards.

Simple games such as Snap, Donkey, Old Maid or Happy Families (although I’m hoping those last two have been updated to suit the modern world) are perfect introductions to card games.

If your children are older and particularly competitive, you could introduce a gambling element (maths – probability) where the reward is the pleasure of winning rather than monetary.

This video contains a link to some cards you can print off. It gives ideas for some games you can play if you’d like to encourage your child to learn and retain their multiplication facts.

Whether it’s Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly, board games come in all ranges and are a great way to allow children to co-operate with others and feel competitive whilst having fun. They’re also important ways of helping children experience how to deal with not winning. (Fingers crossed there won’t be any tantrums where your child flings the board across the room and flounces off because dad just fined him for landing on his hotel!)

8      Watch TV/ YouTube Videos

Yes, watching TV and YouTube can be educational, and quite frankly, it’s good for children to veg out every so often. We can all learn a surprising amount from television programmes, and sometimes a family discussion about what’s happening in a programme or on the news is a valuable learning experience. So many children find it difficult to articulate their own opinions, and being able to do so is an important part of their education (and is involved in a lot of English reading assessments). It’s also a good way for parents to understand what makes their children ‘tick’ or what might be worrying them.

As for YouTube, there are some excellent resources for learning new skills. Obviously, parents need to monitor their children’s computer use, but there’s an awful lot of excellent learning opportunities if you spend time looking.

If you enter ‘coding for kids’ into the search box, you can find lessons that will encourage your child to create their own games rather than mindlessly playing them.

9      Playing with Lego/ Construction Toys

Anything that encourages thinking, planning, designing and dexterity is an invaluable educational resource. It doesn’t have to be Lego – it can even be those basic wooden or plastic building bricks that babies and toddlers use. As a child, I loved those colourful peg boards – I’d spend hours creating different patterns and didn’t realise that this simple and pleasurable activity was helping my understanding of number patterns and symmetry.

 10    Doing Puzzles

Dot-to-Dot; Spot the Difference; How many words can you make from the word mathematics?(or any word of your choice); simple crosswords; Learn to do Sudoku Puzzles with this link; Learn to do magic tricks with Numbers using this link.

If you don’t have access to simple puzzles, there are many you can find online using a simple search.

Puzzles are great as usually they can be completed alone or with help, whichever your child prefers. There isn’t that sense of competition whereby they have to compete with someone else, so less pressure, and  the sense of achievement having completed a puzzle of any kind is immensely satisfying.

These are just a few ideas – there are so many other ways you can keep your children entertained whilst knowing that they’re also learning important skills.

I’d be really interested to know what works for you.

Is there a leap year every four years?

(Clue: no there isn’t)

I remember being told in the run-up to the new millennium that there wouldn’t be a leap year in the year 2000 “because new centuries don’t have leap years.”

I didn’t know the reasoning behind this (I wasn’t actually that interested – I was more worried about finishing my dissertation at the time) and I didn’t question this logic when, in February 2000, we did indeed have 29 days in the month.

More recently, I came across some information about how we do skip leap years at specific years, even though it might be four years since the last leap year. When I mentioned this to others, I was slightly relieved to learn that I wasn’t the only person to have been unaware of this fact.

It’s actually very interesting – so, I have created a couple of videos and there’s a link to the free playlist here.

The first video explains what leap years are, why we have them and how they work. The second explains why we sometimes need to ‘skip’ a leap year and how to work out exactly which years will be leap years. (Some relevant maths challenges have been included.)

Far more interesting than being told that we women can now propose marriage if we wish!

What is the point of Algebra?

Most of us have seen posts such as this on social media; did we really waste those maths lessons trying to find x and y?

It might surprise you to know that we use algebra quite a lot in ‘real’ life.

Here’s just one example:

This requires knowledge of algebraic formulae. (Sounds brainy, doesn’t it?)

It simply means that, if your turkey is 5kg, you need to work out that the cooking time will be 20 minutes multiplied by 5, then add on another 90 minutes.

In algebra (where ‘c’ is the cooking time and ‘w’ is the weight of the turkey) this would be expressed as c = 20w + 90

Of course, we don’t actually say that when we’re working out how long we need to cook the turkey (well, most of us don’t) but we’re doing exactly the same thing.

And how about when you book a taxi, or pay an engineer to fix your boiler?

Most taxi firms will charge you a standard rate for a call out, plus so much per mile or kilometre.

Boiler engineers usually charge a call-out fee, then so much per hour of their labour, plus parts and VAT.

Recently, I asked my Twitter followers which aspects of the maths they learned at school do they use regularly in adult life (and which they don’t). I wasn’t surprised by the number of responses claiming never to have needed algebra, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive the following from Hannah at Daisy Media:

Not being a knitter myself (I tried it once but my attempt finished up hanging from a tree in my garden, where I’d thrown it) I wasn’t convinced, so had a look at some knitting patterns online. And Hannah’s right: knitting is one of the most mathematically challenging tasks you can try. Who’d have thought it?

Yes, mum – really: you are an algebra whizz!

There are so many more areas of adult life in which algebra is used – some related to certain occupations, some to hobbies, and others to domestic tasks.

Think about it: where in life do you use algebra?

Five Things Parents Can Do to Help their Child’s Maths Confidence

Many children worry about maths, and often this anxiety is shared by a parent.

How can you help your child to feel more confident about maths?

1 Let your child see you using maths for daily tasks

Often, it’s the uncertainty of where maths fits into daily life that can be off-putting – for children and for adults.

Money is part of everyday life and children are often unaware that they are using maths skills when they spend money. And who doesn’t enjoy spending money?

Making your child aware that you have to budget (obviously not too much detail), pay for shopping, get change, pay bills, sell stuff on Ebay …  Maybe encourage them to budget with their birthday money, savings or pocket money. Perhaps get them to work out how much would they have in a year if they saved so much each month? What could they buy with that? Or if there’s something they would like to buy, how long would it take to save up for it? How much should they save each week or month?

Also, planning television and computer time together and working out how much time you have for other activities. TV guides are a great way to get children thinking about time and solving time problems, and most guides can be accessed online.

If you’re cooking – or thinking of doing a bit of DIY around the house or garden – let your child get involved. Most children love weighing and measuring stuff, and it’s all good for their understanding of maths.

2 Let your child plan an event

It doesn’t have to be a party – it can be anything that has a real purpose.

Some of the things mentioned in the first point above, such as helping with cooking – maybe planning a feast for a sleepover. What food will be needed and how much will it cost? Do you need to adapt the quantities of a recipe? That’s a great way to introduce Ratio and Proportion.

3 Use colours

I discovered recently that a lot of children see colours in their minds when they think of certain numbers. Let your child loose with coloured crayons/ pens/ felt tips and get them to do number puzzles or even just write out whichever multiplication tables they are learning. See what happens  – they might surprise you with what they can do with numbers when colours are involved.

Even activities such as putting coloured beads or Lego bricks into patterns can be a huge help for children who often see maths as something scary.

4 Give your child puzzles to solve

They don’t even have to be number puzzles. Anything, such as ‘What’s the biggest word you can make out of the word “mathematics”?

Choose three digits from between 0 and 9. How many different numbers can you make? What’s the biggest number? What’s the smallest? What about if you use four digits?

If you sign up to my newsletters here, you’ll receive links to puzzle sheets that introduce sudoku – start with smaller grids, using colours and shapes, before trying 9×9 grids using digits.

You’ll also get a free link to the videos that explain how to solve the puzzles. Great for helping adult beginners too!

5 Don’t let them see your fear!

If you’re unsure of maths, don’t let that become an excuse for your child. I hear so many parents complain, ‘She gets her inability to do maths from me’.

Children don’t necessarily inherit an inability, but they can sniff out fear; if they think maths is something to be afraid of, there’s an increased chance they will struggle with it.

Keep working on your own maths knowledge, even if it’s just for a few minutes a week. It all adds up, and you might even enjoy it!

Five things parents find weird about their children’s maths

It’s maths homework time again.


Time to look at some of the weird and wonderful stuff your child’s being taught at school that you’re sure you never needed to know:

1 Number Lines

Certainly in Key Stage 1, children seem to use number lines for everything – adding, taking away, multiplying and dividing. And it doesn’t help that there’s more than one kind of number line, and seemingly countless ways they can be used.

It’s worth getting familiar with number lines; they really help children understand what happens to numbers when they’re learning new types of calculation.

Division is just one of the many ways in which number lines are useful

2 Partitioning

You probably have vague memories of learning about Hundreds, Tens and Units, but you’re sure you didn’t have to break every number down into those place values before adding, or whatever calculation you’d been asked to do.

Why can’t your kids just be taught to put it all in a column, like you did? Much quicker.

Partitioning is really useful when children are getting used to bigger numbers, especially when learning how numbers behave when different kinds of calculation are applied. It’s particularly helpful with mental maths if you understand how each digit is affected by its place value, and it helps with other methods, such as the grid method for multiplication.

Speaking of which …

3 Grid Method (Gridding)

The grid method is particularly helpful for children learning to multiply numbers that are bigger than those they would learn off by heart.

Yes, it takes longer than the traditional long multiplication method, but it does help children (and adults) understand what’s happening within the more formal multiplication methods. A good stepping-stone from informal methods to the more formal method.

The Grid method is a great stepping stone from number lines to the more formal column method for multiplication

4 Chunking


Chunking is a term used in some calculations, such as division, whereby several pieces of information are ‘chunked’ together to make one easy-to-remember piece of information, thus speeding up the calculation process.

For example, when children are learning to use repeated subtraction to understand division:

85 ÷ 5      

How many lots of 5 do we need to take away from 85 until there are no 5s left?

Rather than taking away one lot of 5 at a time, they can start by taking away one big ‘chunk’ of 5s:

85 take away ten lots of 5 that’s   85 – 50     

which leaves 35              

So now you’re left with 35, which is 7 lots of 5       

How many lots of 5 in total did you need to take away?

10 lots of 5   add 7 lots of five   = 17 lots of 5       There are 17 lots of 5 in 85

So 85 ÷ 5 = 17

5 Multiplying and Dividing by 10, 100 and 1,000

‘Surely you just bung a zero on the end when you multiply by 10?’

That works until you have to multiply a decimal number by 10.

1.5 with a zero on the end gives you 1.50, which is the same as 1.5

And what about dividing by 10 when your number doesn’t have a zero on the end to knock off?

Knowing which way to move the digits depending on whether the number is being multiplied or divided, and knowing how many places to move those digits depending on whether the number is being multiplied or divided by 10, 100 or 1,000, really helps children understand how our base-ten number system works.

And it’s a huge help when they start learning decimals!

Learning what happens to the digits when we multiply or divide by 10, 100 and 1000 helps with much more complex calculations, such as when we use decimals.

Even though some of the methods your child uses to solve calculations may seem strange to you – even a waste of time – be assured that they are useful for understanding how numbers and calculations work.

There are many more explanations for calculation methods here:

Five things parents dread about their child’s maths homework

Five things parents dread about their children’s maths homework

A light-hearted look at the challenges of maths homework

It’s Sunday evening. You’re struggling to get school uniforms ironed, putting on a last-minute wash for the PE kits you just found festering in a discarded bag under your child’s bed, and reading a demand-for-cash letter from your child’s teacher about overdue trip money.

Then suddenly, your child gasps, drops the games console, and announces: ‘I have maths homework. Can you help me?

I remember the feeling well. Your heart beats more rapidly at the same time as it plummets toward your fluffy slippers; a cold shiver runs down your back; and your shaking hands drop that strongly-worded letter into your glass of Pinot.

Gulping, you ask your child what maths homework, and give a silent prayer that it’s not one of the following:

1 – Learning Times Tables

It’s bad enough with a crying child who can’t remember seven times eight, but when you’re not sure either …

‘Learning times tables’ went out of fashion for a while, and it’s possible you’re one of that generation of parents who didn’t have to go through the hell that is reciting your tables in front of the class. It was even worse when the teacher would just point at you and shout a random one (almost always seven times eight when the finger pointed at me).

Times tables joke

Teacher: Sally, stand up and recite your six-times-tables.

Sally: (stands up) Daa daa de-daaa. Daa daa de-daaa. Daa daa de-daaa. Daa-

Teacher: (Angrily) Sally, what are you doing?

Sally: My six times tables, miss. I remember the tune but I’ve forgotten the words!

2 – Fractions

What is it about fractions that they won’t behave like ‘normal’ numbers? How can you divide something by three fifths and end up with more than you had at the beginning? And why is adding fractions together such a long-winded pain in the butt? And what’s a ‘denominator’?

If you find any area of fractions a real nightmare, here are some videos that will help ease the pain!

Fractions joke

Statistics show that seven out of five people don’t understand fractions.

3 – Word Problems

Andy has 3,478 toffees. He keeps 25%, then shares half of what’s left between three of his mates, one of whom sells his share for 25p a toffee. How many teeth does Andy have left?

OK, that’s a bit silly – but that’s how a lot of those wordy maths questions look to children, and to many parents. Even if your arithmetic is strong, attempting to work out exactly what is going on in some of these questions often feels as if you’re taking an IQ logic test.

4 – Anything that requires the use of a ‘number line’

‘We didn’t have number lines in our day. Why can’t kids just learn the method I learned for addition/subtraction/multiplication/division? It was much quicker.’

Number lines are wonderful, versatile things that help children see what is happening to numbers at a basic level, and I wish they had been around when I was struggling with maths at primary school.

But for all that, there seems to be an expectation that parents will be familiar with the new-fangled device, and admitting to bafflement often earns pitying looks – even scorn – from your child.

5 – Algebra

To quote that amusing meme you’ve probably seen on social media: ‘And another day I didn’t need algebra!’

Why do kids even learn algebra? When are we ever going to have x amount of paint to cover y metres of fence panels? Surely we’d know how much we have of each before we start?

There are quite a few real-life occasions when algebra comes in useful, but I bet you’d struggle to think of one whilst your child is having a meltdown and you’re counting how many strands of hair you have left on your head.

Here’s a link to some Algebra videos with step-by-step explanations

Algebra joke

There are very good reasons (usually!) for the methods your child is taught at school, even if you’ve never used them. Life would just be easier, though, if we’d all been taught the same.

If you dread your child’s maths homework, be assured – you’re not alone!

Is your biggest maths-homework-dread included here? Or do you fear something else even more?

Part 2: How I went from being scared of maths to teaching it (and how I stupidly thought that becoming a secondary English teacher would ensure I’d never have to teach maths again!)

This post continues the story from my last post about my struggles with maths as a child, into adulthood, and even as a primary school teacher expected to teach it.

Whilst teaching at primary, I started noticing that we teachers make a lot of assumptions about what children should already understand by the time they reach a certain stage. Surely a child who can recite their tables up to 12 x 12 perfectly will have a good understanding of multiplication – won’t they?

Not necessarily, it seems. It’s possible to learn something by rote without having a real understanding of what it means, as I discovered with a small group of year 6 girls who couldn’t seem to grasp concepts such as division and fractions.

I took them right back to basics and gave them counters to put into ‘arrays’.

What does 3 x 4 actually look like? And how can that image help with the understanding of division?

It was like seeing a lightbulb come on when we did this. Despite being able to recite multiplication facts, these children hadn’t realised how this linked to other aspects of maths – and this was what was holding them back.

It was this revelation that made me reflect on my own struggles with maths. I’d diligently learned my tables at school. (Those were the days when teachers could give you a clout for not doing so, and I was more wussy than lazy). Still, that didn’t prevent my head from being the target for the flying board rubber: I was unable to relate that tables’ knowledge to division and, later on, to fractions.

You see, I’d learned how to do something without understanding how it worked.

Same with long multiplication and long division at secondary school: I knew the procedures to follow, but didn’t understand why they worked; this meant that I couldn’t recognise my error whenever I arrived at a totally outrageous answer – which happened a lot.

Many of the methods children learn in primary school seem long-winded to parents who remember the quicker methods they were taught. But often these modern methods help children to understand how numbers work. (And those modern methods help quite a few non-maths-specialist primary teachers as well – myself included!)

One telling indictment on the state of maths teaching in our schools was that, during my second year of teaching, I was given the job of leading maths for the whole school. Yes, you read that correctly: someone who was scared of maths – and was often only one step ahead of the kids, having sat up the whole night before a lesson to learn how to teach it – was responsible for implementing maths procedures within the school and for training other members of staff in those procedures.

The pressure almost finished off my teaching career.

Teaching English had always been my real passion, so eventually I left primary teaching and became an English teacher at a secondary school. I believed that I’d never need to look at another maths problem for the rest of my teaching career. English teachers don’t need to teach maths …

That belief was quashed shortly after I was made form tutor for a class of Year 11s.

The year leading to GCSEs is horrendous – for pupils and for teachers. Despite being an English teacher, I found myself becoming a sounding board for a group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in my form for whom maths was a complete mystery – just as it had been for me at that age. Much of what they said was familiar: ‘I don’t get how/ why that works’; ‘I can’t remember that method because it doesn’t make sense’; ‘I feel stupid having to ask the same thing over and over again’; ‘My maths teacher has given up on me because I’m never going to get a C’. ‘I’ll never understand maths …’

Before I’d really had time to think about it, I had a group of pupils from my form meeting me after school a couple of times a week whilst we went through some of those basics I’d gone through with my primary pupils. We used pens, sweets, bars of chocolate, crisps (the caretaker wasn’t happy about that one) – anything we could count or use to represent something that could be shared/ cut into fractions/ put into ratios …

Soon we’d moved onto stuff I really didn’t want to think about, and I admitted to my students that I wasn’t teaching; I was learning this along with them. And the pressure on me increased as pupils from other forms had began turning up to these sessions.

We used weighing scales to show how algebraic equations work. We nicked Blu-Tac from corridor displays to make balls that we could then investigate to understand how to calculate the surface area of a sphere. We pilfered grapes, strawberries and tomatoes from the staffroom fridge to demonstrate conditional probability. And I completely exposed my maths-dunciness the first time we tried to recognise quadratic graphs (but we all benefitted from my dreadful mistakes – and had a good laugh along the way. Well, they did!)

That year was a huge learning curve for me, as well as for those young people who’d worked really hard, and who’d helped me more than I ever admitted to them at the time.

By the time I left classroom teaching in 2012 (thanks, Gove!) I’d learned enough about maths to know that I could have done my GCSE again and performed extraordinarily well.

Maybe one day I’ll do just that.

How I went from being scared of maths to teaching it (Part 1)

It’s the summer of 1980. A sixteen-year-old is staring at her maths CSE exam paper (she isn’t good enough to do the O level) feeling sick and wondering how the hell to add two fractions with different denominators.

This paper is worse than she’d ever imagined; she knows the best she can hope for is a grade 3. (She got a grade 4 in the end – that’s on a par with a GCSE grade F.)

That sixteen-year-old was me.

Sweating and sniffling in that sticky, stuffy exam hall, I was aware that this moment was the culmination of eleven years of struggling to understand even the most basic concepts of maths. I was devastated that I was doing so badly, yet relieved that I would never, ever in the future have to sit through another maths lesson …

Fast forward to the summer of 1995, and I’m a 32-year-old mother-of-two sitting in a different exam hall doing my maths GCSE. I need a grade C so I can do my chosen course at university.

It’s been a tough year. Both my children are pre-school; I’ve had no social life or relaxation time as every spare moment has been spent grappling with those same gremlins that had plagued me during my childhood. My husband has been spending his evenings attempting to get through my thick head why equals 9 and Y equals 5, and not doing a very good job of hiding his frustration and incredulity at my inability to retain the formulas.

I got my C and did my degree, graduating in 2001. I then applied for a place on a teacher training course, whilst working in a voluntary capacity at my children’s school.

Even with a maths GCSE under my belt, I watched teachers explain to eight- and -nine-year-old children concepts that were a revelation to me. I hadn’t realised how easy it was to divide 37 by 10 or 100. I hadn’t thought about how division is the inverse of multiplication, and that using counters to show three multiplied by four could also be used to show twelve divided by three. I hadn’t realised that fractions are division (one half – written as ½ – literally translates as one divided by two).

I was beginning to understand so many maths concepts that I didn’t remember being taught as a child – knowledge of which had been assumed on my GCSE course.

Once I started my teacher training, the pace picked up – especially when I was assigned a year six class where some of the kids were already at GCSE Foundation standard. I remember vividly a lesson I had to teach on ratio and proportion. I sat up for the whole of the previous night with tubes of Smarties, arranging them into different ratios of colours: ‘there are four red Smarties for every three green ones; how many red Smarties will there be if there are twelve green?’ ‘There are 28 Smarties; two in every seven are brown – how many brown Smarties are there?’ (Kathy eats twenty orange Smarties every time she cries; how much weight will she put on by the end of the night?)

Despite my new understanding of some of the basics (thanks to Julie Gawthorpe of Bar Hill School!) I still didn’t enjoy maths: indeed, it was giving me more sleepless nights than it had when I was at school.

You may be wondering at this point how I ever began teaching maths – not just to primary children, but to GCSE pupils and adults as well.

It’s nothing short of a miracle, to be honest, but you’ll have to wait for the next instalment.