National Numeracy Day: Maths confidence matters

When I talk about maths, I always tell one story. At 11, I won an assisted place at a fee-paying school - the only one of my six siblings to get that opportunity. That meant that I experienced a different approach to education - one where everyone in my class did GCSE maths a year early, and everyone was expected to get a top grade.

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Expected. Not coaxed, cajoled, nagged. Just “here’s what we’re doing, keep up”. I’m not here to examine the rights or wrongs - but I know it had a significant effect on me, and on my family.

My sister, following along two years behind in a different school and a different system, looked likely to be put forward to do the foundation maths paper - the one where you could, back then, get a maximum of a ‘C’ grade. And I, with all my 17 years of wisdom, decided that she was capable of more. And my mum, who’d never sat a GCSE or an O-level, nor done any formal maths she’s aware of since the late 1950s, listened to me and talked to the school. 

I chatted to my mum about this recently. She told me that the Head of Maths had been discouraging, offered no special help (why should he) and made clear that there’d be a lot of catching up to be done by my sister - by herself. 

Not a problem. I would teach her. I did. 

I’m surprised we both survived the experience. But she did better than survive, she succeeded - and went on to do maths at A-level, and university, and as a big part of her job. And now she has a PhD, and I don’t bring up maths with her any more for fear she might try to teach me something.

Between being ‘bad’ and being ‘good’ at maths, there’s often something small: a story about who we are that stayed with us; an impression formed by someone with preconceptions; a line that was drawn on a page of names with our name just above or just below. Often, our feelings about numbers are formed early – and they’re associated with moments of powerful emotion. Moments we felt stupid, were laughed at - or felt clever and better. 

One of the reasons I was pushed towards maths is because “it’s not subjective, it’s right or wrong” - there’s no space for the injustice that is inherent in opinions. But that’s not true. Our capability is, to some degree, an accident of circumstance. Above everything, success in maths is a confidence game.

If you’re staring at an impenetrable page of numbers and all it brings to mind is every exposing moment you’ve ever had, you will go a long way to avoid experiencing that situation and those feelings. This means that you’ll avoid key decisions that affect your own financial circumstances, that you’ll stay quiet when the conversation at work turns to numbers, and that you’ll live in perpetual fear of being found out as ‘not a numbers person’.

If, on the other hand, you have a firm belief that there’s a solution and that you have the tools you need to find it, the opportunity to use those tools is a moment of real power over your circumstances.

Confidence with numbers is a crucial enabler - and one that’s lacking, especially in groups who tend to be under-represented in our industry as this recent research from National Numeracy shows. If we want to benefit from a broader array of perspectives, especially in senior roles, we need to address number confidence. Today is National Numeracy Day - it’s a day for focusing on number confidence - in our families, our communities and our workplaces. You can get involved here.

And if you have a moment to let me know what maths skills you need in your work, what you look for when you recruit new people, what you wish you’d learnt when you were at school, I would love to hear from you with any feedback or insights at

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Notes to editor

We are excited to announce our keynote speaker at our flagship regional event, the North Dinner, on 15 June will be Lucy-Marie Hagues, CEO, Capital One UK. Lucy is part of the government's "Maths to 18" initiative, recently launched by the prime minister and the education secretary.  The event will focus on the skills needed by employers to help regions thrive.