How the study of Mathematics has blighted my life
The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do. . - Bagehot
Maths may have a reputation as a ‘hard’ subject but, at least in a fair number of cases, I am sure that the difficulties arise because people have missed a topic(s) in school, by virtue of illness, or possibly just laziness at the time, or any number of reasons, and that has stored up problems for later on, given the hierarchical nature of the subject, probably with people being totally unaware that they are lacking the required knowledge at this more basic level.
I myself did not experience any difficulties of this type when I was at school, but I most certainly have come across them later. The problem is to get people to recognize the difficulties. Exactly by analogy with what I said in the first paragraph, more often than not, you will be automatically deemed to be ‘poor’ in Mathematics, termed as some sort of ‘no-hoper’ (the exact opposite of the truth), rather than have your situation recognized. I can classify the source of my later difficulties into two (non-exclusive) groupings, both of which represent what has been a bit of an eye-opener.
- Socially-ignorant teachers (who represent a high-proportion of teaching staff) will never, ever accept that lack of money is an extenuating circumstance in causing lower-than-expected grades.
- Socially-ignorant teachers (who represent a high-proportion of teaching staff) will tend always to look at negative aspects – never at your true potential.
‘Blighted’ is probably too weak a word to describe the consequences of all this on my one and only life. It has become one full-scale struggle - although Mathematics is one subject that I definitely can do well, I cannot do it to the best of my abilities whilst suffering financial difficulties. So, ironically, while pursuing an education in my best subject, I have suffered great problems, - whereas, if I had studied another subject, one I am less able at, I would have ended up being better off. This is the price I have to pay for studying mathematics.
I took my O-levels when I was 15 – one year ahead of the normal age. In contradiction to the title, perhaps it is English that has destroyed my life - I failed English and was therefore unable to immediately enter the Sixth Form to study for A-Levels. This set off a sequence of events which, mixed with various problems I had at the time, of the type that I can’t even fully remember myself, resulted in my leaving school with only O-Levels to my name.
One thing I do remember clearly is that my form-master had once written on my report that I had a great future. In reality, as things developed I have not experienced anything of this great future, and the word bitter does not begin to describe how I feel about the subsequent turn of events.
To summarize my early education, I have sufficient references to my capabilities in mathematics. At Woolton County Primary school, I was top in the subject. At Quarry Bank Grammar School (Liverpool), I did well likewise, and took my O-Levels at the age of 15.
I did return to study later, in the mathematical area. Far from being a happy experience, it has developed into a full-scale nightmare - it seems to have been like one long fight to gain the qualifications that I feel I deserve.
Although I went straight into a full-time job, I later spent a long period on the dole or doing part-time work (e.g. several years as a barman in the Sefton Arms Hotel) in the Liverpool of the time, with its extremely high unemployment..
I did try to study for A-Levels, but night school was a bit problematic, even when I could actually attend (i.e. when I wasn’t working in the pub). I was studying Mathematics - less-mathematical subjects would have been easier to study and, in fact, by choosing Mathematics, I was going nowhere fast, under these circumstances.
- One lecturer (although not a Maths lecturer) took the opportunity to tell me that I was a ‘drifter’, who would never achieve any qualification success - when I tried to tell him I was having financial difficulties, he related a story about a Chinese student who had attended the year before with clothes hanging off him and a bottle of water for lunch. This ‘chinese student’ had done well apparently - therefore I had no reason to complain about lack of money - academic performance does not depend on income.
- On another occasion, a different lecturer expressed astonishment that I should seriously be entertaining hopes of going to University, since “only 4% of the population manage to go to University”.
· Without going into the full details, one high-up lecturer in a college on the outskirts of Liverpool spent a lot of time putting me down with the most irrational arguments. This was a person very much in the Thatcherite mould, just come up from London, lived in Formby and possibly only made the briefest of contacts with ‘genuine’ Liverpool when he skirted the city for maybe a kilometre or so, coming into work. The tirade in Educating Rita against people who live in Formby always has a special place in my heart.
I did try and get a grant and general assistance from the City Council, but the straightforward fact of life was that spending less on education was a good way for the (Liberal) Council to reduce its expenditure. At the time I thought this was an extremely backward mind-set, something that needs exposing and then, several years later on, the present British Government decides to adopt the same attitude. The Chair of the Liverpool Education Committee who was responsible for this reduction in grant expenditure was Mike Storey, who is now (2003) leader of the Liverpool City Council.
· Someone from Liverpool Education Committee, whose name I have genuinely forgotten, but who I noted, straight away, was a Daily Telegraph reader, responded to my a list of my difficulties with a genuine, smug, complacent : “What exactly is your problem ?”. He compounded his lack of understanding by saying I should ‘study in the library’, like he used to do (It was very,very early on in life when I realized that everything is life is ‘dead easy’ to the pig-ignorant). The ‘comical’ thing about this is that whereas libraries in Liverpool used to open from 0900 to 2100 every day, by then the Liberal Council had reduced the hours to 0900-1800 – something this official was unaware of. From his overall attitude, I am sure he obviously thought he had done a good job dealing with me. There is a nice little line from the Glass Menagerie describing ‘certain sections’ of society as ‘graduates of the blind school’.
· Taking my plea for assistance to my local councillor, Richard Pine, didn’t get very far. He tried a classic ‘why don’t you go away’ scenario on me. He had no interest at all. He was adopted as Liberal candidate for Parliament in 1987, standing against Terry Fields, A quote from The Independent seems to be typical.
Richard Pine (Liberal candidate for Broadgreen), 34, is virtually
certain to defeat Terry Fields, the Militant-supported Labour MP at Liverpool Broadgreen
A report from after election states
Terry Fields increased his majority by 60 per cent with an almost 13 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour. Massive swings towards Labour were recorded in all the Liverpool seats. It was not an accident that the five Liverpool Labour MPs - although Bob Wareing wavered and opposed them later on - had remained unshakable in defence of their council comrades.
· A teacher from West Derby Comprehensive School, who was a regular customer in the pub, responded to the news that I had been turned down for a grant with the words : ”That’s good, that’ll keep my rates down”,
Liverpool – Riversdale College
Finally, Liverpool Council had a sudden brainstorm and gave me a grant - not for an A-level course (because I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to study for A-Levels) but for an OND Engineering at Riversdale College. Although this was obviously a two-year course, I ended up entering University in Cardiff one year later, with a mark in Mathematics at Riversdale of 98%.
The grant was only a discretionary grant though, which was lower than a University grant. Nevertheless, the City Council expressed concern that I might keep on working part-time in the pub, and therefore go over the allowed income that students were allowed to earn. This was a clause in the conditions for all student grants, University or discretionary :- students were only allowed to earn some fairly small amount and earnings above this were supposed to result in the grant being reduced by the amount earned. In practise, this clause was never applied – except for me apparently, despite the fact that I was on a lower grant and had been on a low income for several years.
In the end, I did indeed continue working in the pub, which took me over this limit. The Council still made a point of finding this out – they said they weren’t going to reduce my grant, but they weren’t going to pay any travelling expenses. I think I can probably say that I was the only student in the whole country to be treated in this manner.
As stated, although I was studying a two-year course, I actually sat A-Levels at the end of the first year (simultaneously with my first year exams at Riversdale), gaining four. I only attained a grade E in Maths, but my preparation for the exam had only been this one year’s study on an OND Engineering. To state the bleeding obvious :- A-Levels are intended to be sat by students who study for two years on a dedicated A-Level course (it might seem superfluous to have to point this out, but in the light of later events it does needs to be specifically stated).
The one word of criticism that I could level against Riversdale was that the prolonged illness of the Mechanics lecturer was not covered by another lecturer, or supply teacher etc.. This was to hit my performance in the Applied Mathematics section of the A-Level exam.
Note the contrast here - trying to study Maths by myself or night school (when possible) meant I was going nowhere; when I received tuition in a more ‘normal’ situation, I was off and away on a different plane altogether. Situations of a similar nature were to re-occur several times in my life.
Riversdale was to be the last place that I received genuine encouragement to follow the subject of Mathematics. From now, it was to be back to ‘fighting’ again.
Just prior to leaving for University, the teacher at West Derby School (already mentioned) heard someone say I was going to University. “Surely not” , he sneared, “you mean Polytechnic”.
I had opted to study Engineering at Cardiff. I definitely had a hard time originally – I felt very, very out of place at University in Cardiff :-
- after all those years on the dole, stuck in Liverpool,
- meeting too many people who thought there was nothing wrong with the politics of high unemployment.
I did realise eventually that my subject choice itself was a bad move, and decided to move into Mathematics, naively expected that it would be comparatively straightforward. It is here where my previous remark about my formal A-Level results comes into play – my grade E was not indicative of what I could really do in Mathematics and I was hoping that my 98% from Riversdale would be taken into account. This was not to be.
I was told by the Admissions Tutor at a University in Cardiff that my Grade E was insufficient because of the ‘fierce’ competition for places. He took any notice at all of my Riverdale ‘credentials’ . Whether he would have accepted me, if he had taken these into account is a separate issue, the point I am stressing is that no notice at all was taken of these ‘credentials’. This was my first encounter with what was to become a surprising and recurring feature – the way that University academics are quite capable of acting like complete dunces when the mood takes them.
Polytechnic of Wales
Because I was financing myself, I had no option other than to accept the best offer in the Cardiff area, which was a place on an HND in Mathematics. I was expecting to get myself transferred on to the degree at the end of the first year.
This did not occur - studying Maths under financial constraints had a similar effect as previously. However, of those who did not get transferred, I was the one with the highest marks and I did at least try to persuade them to transfer me, but as mentioned several times already, lack of money is never accepted as a cause for reduced performance.
The fact that I had received a threat several weeks before the exams that I would be barred from the exams unless I paid all my fees (my last cheque had bounced) was not a factor to be classed as ‘extenuating circumstances’. It made no difference that having paid for myself for one year, their actions meant I would have to pay for myself for yet another year in the future.
I remember clearly pointing out to the head of the degree course, Hutchings, that I had five A-Levels, to which he responded immediately :
“Five A-Levels don’t count for very much because anyone can get 25 A-Levels by the time they’re 65”.
I did receive a grant for my second year, and consequently did much, much better. I had great hopes of getting myself transferred on to the second-year of a degree course at UWIST in Cardiff. This was a prime ambition of mine, something I had my heart really set on, but after telling them this for an hour at interview, they turned me down because they decided I wasn’t fully interested in the course. (Any realistic attempt to increase access to Universities would require admission tutors to take notice of what prospective students are actually telling them at interview). In retrospect, this interviewer (T.C. Iles) was expressing low expectations of me before I had even started.
I was accepted at University College in Cardiff, but they wanted me to start from the first year. So instead I went straight on to the second-year of a Maths course at Newcastle University.
Because of the grant I received for my second year of my HND, I had to finance myself entirely through this second-year at Newcastle University. This would have been difficult enough in Cardiff, but having to move to a place where I knew no-one, where I had no established work and no idea what the work opportunities were, with no money to help me ‘get into the swing of things’, it was everything but totally impossible. When I broached the subject of my finances, my personal tutor (O.H. King) just looked at me - he had seemingly no real idea what I was talking about. He irritated me further by his expressions of low expectation.
I did pass the second-year exams (barely) but had to hope for more ‘realistic’ results in my last year, and then plead extenuating circumstances. As previously stated, since ‘socially-unaware’ teachers constitute a higher proportion of University staff than the population at large, this was a very risky procedure.
I almost did it, in a manner of speaking. I received a first-class result in one of the four units, four marks below a first-class result in another, but 42% in another, 2 points above a fail, something that effectively ended my planned career stone-dead.
Nothing I could have done would have allowed me to do well in this latter unit. I have complained strongly about the handling of this latter unit but that is a different story in itself
( see www.middleages.co.uk ). Suffice it to say that my ‘absence’ during the first-year and problems during the second year did not stand me in good stead with the ‘more basic’ questions introduced into the exam by the Maths Department to compensate for the fact that all students had difficulty with the actual current course material (needless to say, this is a highly-irregular procedure - previously they had tried to reduce the number of students studying this course, which is also a highly-irregular thing to do).
Continuing Problems at Portsmouth Polytechnic
My disillusion contines to this day. I was ‘lured’ under false pretences to enter a postgraduate course at Portsmouth Polytechnic, under the believe that I might be able to receive financial assistance. Instead I have had to watch while any available financial assistance has gone mostly to very wealthy students, students who own cars despite never having worked (or even owning a flat), or who can commute every day from 100 kilometers away etc.. etc.
Most certainly, I can make no practical complaint of injustice because the prevailing response or assumption will be that I am not good enough to be awarded a financial award - because this (elitist) attitude displayed by Portsmouth Polytechnic (and shared by Newcastle University) is actually nothing else but the ‘natural order’ of things. It’s all perfectly ‘normal’, just as the under-representation of working-class students in Universities in general, or the preponderance of public-school students at Oxbridge, is nothing less than the same ‘natural order’ of things.
This is quite apart and separate from the standard status-determined justice that rules in institutions of higher education, anyway.
I know full well how right-wing opinions work. It was no surprise to me that I was continually rejected to study A-Levels and there was little I could do about that. The same scenario is just repeating itself, and likewise there is little I can do about it.
Access to University
Latterly my grievances have overlapped with a problem which has arisen in the media in early 2003 - that of access to University for the less-well-off. ‘Concerns’ expressed during this debate have largely been treated by me with contempt - the straightforward fact of life is that Higher Education is dominated by the aforementioned socially-ignorant, complacent people, to whom lack of money will never, ever be accepted as a reason for below-par performance. Their idea is that academic performance is not affected by income, at all.
Ludicrously, Newcastle University have been trying to portray themselves as pioneers in increasing access to education for the less-well-off.
Special Problems with Mathematics
All good education is about making and stressing links with prior knowledge, and in Mathematics this is a supreme feature. My reduced ability to fully grasp details at one level because of financial difficulties, multiplied itself greatly at a higher level, even if I was financially better-off at this later level. I think most people reading this will would express sympathy with this latter statement, but I think few would be aware at all of the degree of the problem.
Furthermore, there are the concepts of deep and surface learning to consider. Ironically, despite now working for the Open University, I have to be honest and admit that I would not recommend students to study Mathematics with the OU if they have the opportunity to study full-time. Mathematics needs deep-learning, it needs time to be spent on it, it needs discussion and constructive collaboration with fellow-students. Again, with less financial resources, students will experience these advantages less - the immediate effects might not even be too apparent to many students - maybe initial exam results might not be affected, but without deep learning, the subject matter will be forgotten quicker. Later exams would suffer because of the reliance on links with prior knowledge, as already noted.
Probably even more obscure to people used to a more reliable income, there is the state of mind induced when your quality of living is less than perfect - quite simply my state of mind was such that it was clear that I was not taking in mathematical ideas as readily as I was able. It was noticeable that I could not concentrate as well as I could under ‘normal’ conditions.
My own career has followed a path light-years away from that which I would have originally envisaged. Although I can do Mathematics well, actually trying to make a career of Mathematics has been disastrous, and it has been disastrous because I did not have the financial resources to make a go of it.
Of course the current situation in Education is going to have the effect of putting people off Mathematics
Drop in Maths Students
The drop in numbers of Mathematics students (while student numbers as a whole are claimed to be climbing) has lead to statements being regularly expressed that Mathematics could consequently be perceived to be a difficult subject.
Extrapolating from what I have just said, in my view, it would be more realistic to accept that actually Mathematics is a difficult subject, and part and parcel of reduced financial support for students is that Mathematics cannot avoid suffering disproportionately.
Extrapolating from my own experience, a drop in Mathematics students due to reduced financial support for students is precisely what I would expect.
As a further illustration, I was recently awarded an external B.A. German from London University, on the basis of work that I carried out as a glorified hobby, reading German Literature etc. during my free time. I would never, ever have been able to attain a degree in Mathematics in this manner, despite the fact that I am better at Mathematics than I am at German.
The four A-Levels I received after one year’s study in Liverpool, plus one other gained since then