We need to stop saying 'I'm crap at maths' like it's a badge of honour, says Rachel Riley

Maths is suffering from an image problem says Countdown's Rachel Riley, and improving children's perceptions of the subject starts with changing our own attitudes

Helen Amass

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Rachel Riley, the mathematician and television personality, is talking about how to teach maths. As a woman in Stem and a household name, she is in a unique position to change perceptions of the subject, which she believes is suffering from an image problem.

But Riley, best known for her role on Channel 4’s Countdown and for appearing on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, does not pretend to be an expert on what should be happening in your classroom.

“I’m lucky because I get to go into schools and I get to bang my drum about how maths is useful and important and it can be fun, but I don’t have a degree in education,” she points out.

While she might not have to face the day-to-day realities of the classroom, Riley does have some ideas about how to improve the “branding issue” that maths faces. It all starts with being careful about the messages that we communicate to children, she says.

“I think not losing [children] early is really important, and one of the ways that we can do that is to stop saying that we are crap at maths and having it as a badge of honour. You wouldn’t say ‘I can’t read’ and have the same kind of flippant attitude towards it. But it is something that if you hear it enough – that’s how advertising works – you start to believe it.”

A 'toolkit' approach

Riley attended a girls’ grammar school in Southend-on-Sea before going on to study mathematics at Oriel College, Oxford. Performing well in exams came naturally to her, but she believes that many students, who don’t have the same natural aptitude for maths, are put off by too much teaching to the test.

“I was good at exams. They did me very well. I could be lazy up until the point of the exam and then do it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing,” says Riley.

“I think coursework and making things fun is more important, because if you’re trying to train people up to get careers or to be numerate in their day-to-day lives, it’s never put in a box. Whatever job you have, you’ll never have exam conditions. So, there’s a bit of a discrepancy about what you’re trying to achieve with the education, rather than just testing.”

Teachers are clearly not able to choose whether or not they focus on Sats, but Riley suggests that they always contextualise the learning, even when using test-focused techniques like drilling and repetition. That means explaining why these skills will be useful in the long-term.

Riley remembers a university tutor who used to say “you use your theorems like you’d use your toolkit” and she now stresses the need to communicate this “toolkit” approach to pupils.

“Whatever level you’re at, [things like] knowing your times tables are the tools that you use to solve [problems like] the Countdown game,” she says.

Building confidence

It’s essential that students are able to do the basic operations, but this must be balanced with learning how to apply those operations to solve real-life problems, she adds.

A new set of maths resources that Riley has helped to develop take such an approach. Part of the Primary Stars programme produced by the Premier League, the resources help to teach maths in the context of football match analysis.

Another part of solving maths’ image problem, Riley says, is to demonstrate that the subject isn’t only for “old white guys with beards” and that people who work in Stem all start out at the same level.   

“They’re all just people. They’ve learnt the same way, but now they’re solving problems of how to make exoskeletons to help disabled people walk or how to build the fastest car in the world,” says Riley.

Often, there is a perception that careers in Stem are “exclusively for geniuses” and this is something that she hopes can change.

“It’s just one of those myths that has been repeated and reported enough and [children] think ‘I’m not good enough’. But it’s about giving them confidence and taking them up level by level by level and they can reach wherever they want to go.”

More than anything, though, it is the hard work of teachers that will really help children to reach new heights.

“Well done to the teachers,” says Riley.

Primary schools can register for the Premier League's Primary Stars programme for free and download maths resources featuring Rachel Riley.

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