Friday, July 25, 2008

M=F in (high school) maths.

At secondary school I had a maths teacher confidently (and regularly) claimed that no girls should be in his (the top) set. The fact that I and a handful of other girls were in his set was an anomaly that he couldn't explain. He *could* explain the other, larger handful of girls that asked to be moved down a set - they were no good at maths, of course. It couldn't bet that they were fed up of being singled out as freaks and failures by this abrasive character.

At the end of my second year of GCSEs, in a class of over 30, only five girls remained. I'm sure the other teachers were good, but dropping a set in maths was a disaster. You see at that time (possibly still?) there were two papers for maths: a lower and a higher. The higher paper could lead to any mark from A-C or fail (iirc) whilst the 'lower' exam capped your possible mark at a C. I think this was a hangover from the old 'O'-Level/CSE divide, which had only been abolished a year or two ago. [Edit: I've just found out that this ridiculous system still exists so there are essentially 3 maths exams with a narrow band between cap and ceiling - how discouraging, knowing the school has put you in for an exam you can get a maximum of an E-Grade in (that's got to help with revision). And how terrifying (I remember this feeling) that if you don't get an A*, A or B (A,B, or C in my day) then you fail outright. Is this peculiar to the Maths GCSE? What is the rationale?]

At my school, only those in this top set were entred for the paper that allowed you to get a grade above C. No matter what your potential, if you were in any other set you were only entred for the 'lower' exam, which capped your possible mark at a C. So of my year, there were only five girls (of a cohort of about 100) that could possibly get a grade greater than a C.

I'd like to think that this is good news. That sexist bastard maths teachers will have to bow to the evidence and treat all their pupils according to their skills, not their sex. Sadly, the same results were shown in a study 20 years ago - and whilst I'm old, I'm still young enough that my maths teacher should have been aware of them if he's been a half way committed professional.

As it was I got an A grade (A* hadn't been invented back then). Not only that, I won an honourable mention from the exam board. I shared the school maths prize with my friend James. My maths teacher took me to one side and told me that he'd vehemently opposed 'his' maths prize being given to a girl, hence the share. He also told James, one of my best friends, that I'd only been given the prize as a token gesture - despite my commendation from the exam board.

At that point my heart was broken. I always liked maths because you're on the safe ground of being able to unambiguously prove something. You know when you're right. However it seemed that my results should have unambiguously proved that I was enough of a freak to be a girl who could do maths (oh yes, I bought the girls can't do maths stereotype too - I just longed to be an exception). At that point I gave up on maths - I couldn't bear the humiliation and the though of two more years fighting my way upstream was more than I felt capable of.

Despite excellent maths and science grades I took French and German (two very honourable and serous subjects) and Business and General Studies (what was I thinking). It wasn't only my maths teacher - old fashioned views about "girls subjects" (easy) and "girls jobs" (few) put me off too. To this day I regret, no I'm *ashamed*, I don't (officially) have A-level maths. And that I still think I caouldn't do it, because I'm a girl.

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