Use it or Lose it – a cautionary tale

Eva Byrne, leading lady in The Dark Side trilogy, is a swot. More specifically, she is a mathematician, a musician, a linguist, with more academic credentials to her name than is truly good for her. She can pass exams in her sleep. Straight A’s, no problem.

This matter was close to home in our house last week when the GCSE results were announced in UK secondary schools. My daughter took her maths GCSE a year early, and like hosts of other dutiful parents that morning I sat in the car waiting for her to emerge from school, results envelope in her hot little hand. She came into sight and I peered anxiously at her, looking for any sign, any expression to give me advance warning of what sort of reaction was required.

Commiserations? Not to worry, love, there’s always resits.

Congratulations? Here’s fifty quid, go treat yourself.

Neither, it seemed. She got an A, which in my book was absolutely stunning. I’d have needed to offer to have the examiner’s babies to get so much as a sniff at an A. But not my little Eva-in-the-making. It needed to be an A star or it was a failure. She was talking about resitting the exam all the way home in the car…

…which sort of reminded me of when I re-took my maths O Level.

I used to have a posh job. Well, sort of posh – I was a director of a regeneration company in Leeds, in the UK so used to get to hobnob a bit with business folk, council chief officers and such like. And one such opportunity came in the form of an invitation to participate in Common Purpose. People in the UK might have heard of this. It’s a training programme for aspiring leaders, and brings people from different walks of life together to look at how a city works, and how folks with any clout can pool their efforts and ingenuity – should they have any – to help to make their city work better. Heady stuff indeed.

I did the course a few years ago, along with a bunch of police inspectors, local councillors, property developers, council bigwigs, people from the commerce and finance sectors, and a handful of people running voluntary organisations. Quite a mix, and I got to know some interesting folk who I’m still in touch with years later.

Common Purpose is arranged around themes, and on this particular fateful day our theme was ‘Education’. We were hosted for the day by the head of a huge secondary school in north Leeds, and duly turned up there to be told that our first task was to tackle the Maths GCSE paper that their Year 11 students had done the previous week.

My heart sank. I hadn’t bargained for this. I’d turned out that morning expecting to be talked at about the mysteries of the national curriculum, school league tables, that sort of thing. Maths GCSE – shit!

Luckily though, one of my colleagues on the course was a chap called John. John was regional head of mortgage lending for a major high street bank (best they remain nameless), so I was confident he could do sums. You must appreciate, this was a more innocent age. We all thought bankers could add up back then. So I made it my business to sit next to John, and sneaked a peep at his paper every time I got stuck.

Some of the questions were OK. I recall one was about speed and average miles per hour. I’ve charged down the M1 in a blind panic to catch a ferry from Portsmouth enough times to be able to work out those sorts of problems. And anything involving percentages was fine with me. I managed to calculate how many tins of cat food could be carried in a lift, although why on earth anyone would want to bother was beyond me. I even managed a bit of geometry because, well, that’s just logic, isn’t it? But I was completely floored by the request to calculate the circumference of the Moon armed only with the dog’s age and shoe size. Similarly, quadratic equations and most of the algebra might as well have been written in hieraglyphics for all the sense they made to me. So, on those occasions, rather than disappoint the kind teachers giving up their lunch break to mark our papers, I sneaked a peep at John’s answers. He was confident, streaking through it all like a knife through butter. My strategy was sound.

I wouldn’t normally advocate such underhand tactics, but this was serious. This was a GCSE. And maths at that. Not a time for messing about.

So, and hour and a half later, we all handed in our papers and retired to lick our wounds over coffee. I was quietly confident. Me and John had done OK. So imagine my surprise then, soon after lunch, when the results were announced. No discreet, personally addressed envelopes for us though. No, this was brutal. Our results were read out in reverse order, and my name came up regrettably early. I was second from last. The only reason I wasn’t bottom of the class was because that honour was claimed by John. The questions I’d managed to get right were the ones I worked out myself, and that placed me marginally above my inspiration from the world of banking. It seemed that John knew considerably less than me about percentages. And pretty much everything else vaguely arithmetical.

He explained this lapse by telling us his wife recently gave birth to twin girls and he’d not been getting much sleep. A likely tale.

The thing was though, everyone in that room had passed their maths GCSE at some point, and some had achieved great things. Like Eva Byrne, and my own little mathematical guru with her grade A last week, we’d all been able to do this stuff at some point. But we’d forgotten. We’d managed to tip all that knowledge, so carefully amassed and revised and finely honed, right out of our heads and instead we’d filled our skulls with other wisdom since, things that we used and needed now. Well, that’s my story.

And I suppose that’s the moral of the tale – use it or lose it. What you don’t need to know you quickly forget, and the knowledge we retain is the stuff we have a use for in later life. I wonder how many of my daughter’s friends will still be able to pass their GCSE in a few years time?

Oh, and it probably pays to choose your mortgage lender wisely – maybe a little maths test before signing in the box

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