Sir Tim Hunt recently said that when you criticise girls in laboratories, the girls cry.

The University acted promptly, which was correct. Unfortunately, Sir Tim Hunt’s publicly-made, small remark has big, international significance.

Like Prince Harry thoughtlessly wearing a Nazi armband, it was unacceptable.

For over ten years I have talked to many mathematicians, and – speaking as a professional interviewer – sometimes I have found that very difficult.

Recently, I blurted this out to a revered mathematician and – to my surprise – he understood what I meant. And this is what he told me.

1. Mathematicians are very IMPATIENT people.

2. A good mathematician is not necessarily a good teacher. However, a good teacher can learn – relatively quickly – to teach up to and including Key 3 maths.

3. When talking to each other, mathematicians have no communication problems, but they can have difficulty when talking to a student because what is then needed is a restrictive language with a smaller vocabulary, for each age and ability.

Imagine a staircase, said my friendly mathematician. At the top of the staircase two maths teachers, Pat and Alex, are happily chatting to each other about maths.

On the bottom step stands a five-year-old. On the second step stands a
six-year-old, and so on. The maths teachers cannot easily adjust their communication level about maths to either of them… or a ten-year-old or a fourteen-year-old.

Mathematicians like talking to each other at the top of the stairs, because it makes them feel more secure. But a good maths teacher needs to be able to communicate well about maths on every level of the staircase.

Copyright © Shirley Conran 2015

The national debt and the budget overspend

Shirley Conran

Thank Heaven it’s over. After the most boring election within living memory, life can now begin again.

The Guardian recently asked me what I would do if I were Prime Minister for the day. In the morning I would probably redesign the out-dated British political system, because Democracy worked in Ancient Greece but it doesn’t work in modern Greece – or here.

In the afternoon, I would immediately bring back hanging, but only for selected politicians. The aim would be humiliation. The guilty would be hung for the day in that contraption in which Boris was suspended, and they would all wear bathing suits two sizes too small.

Hanging offenses would be:

1. Underestimating public intelligence and mathematical ability, especially when costing a proposal.

2. Answering questions with a pat, party proclamation that had nothing to do with the question (step forward, Yvette Cooper).

3. Using vague, woolly, feel-good phrases that amount to zilch. Examples of woolliness from the Lib Dem Manifesto that also might be useful for a
Miss World speech were: “Prosperity for all… quality care for all… and protecting Nature.” (Source: BBC TV news 28 April 2015).

4. Appealing to unaffordable, impractical sentimentality (stand up, Nicola Sturgeon, whose policy is not-turning-my-back-on-all-African-immigrants-on-all-boats).

5. Suggesting any policy to be funded by hazy scapegoats such as “banks”, “rich people”, “rich foreign bankers”.

6. Using any words that openly encourage class hatred (Ed Miliband, you might lay off “the rich”, by which I suppose you mean only people with three kitchens).

7. Being a political coward, such as those who continue to ban recreational drugs, rather than try to test-sell them – like tobacco, ferociously taxed. (Own up, Dave, have you never passed around a joint at a weekend dinner party?)

8. Suggesting any policy that doesn’t fit within the current Budget (yes, you, Mrs Green who wants to employ a million more public servants).

9. Using Financial SmokeScreenSpeak. There are only two possibilities, as I’ve said before: either a politician is too stupid to tell the difference between the National Debt (currently around £1.3 Trillion) and the Current Budget Overspend – or they don’t want us to understand the difference because they don’t want to be caught out when increasing both.

The National Debt is the total amount of money that Britain owes its lenders and that needs to be repaid; this sum increases every time the Government currently spends more than it receives, which is Current budget overspend.

Sadly, the new Conservative Government we’ve got may well do what it tells us not to do: it will overspend with no clear, logical date-pegged plan for repayment, and it will try to conceal this with Financial SmokeScreenSpeak. They’d never get a mortgage.

Copyright © Shirley Conran 2015

The national debt and the budget overspend

Shirley Conran

Political smokescreen-speak may well confuse two items that are vital to this election, the national debt and the budget overspend.

The national debt is the total amount of money that Britain owed to its lenders and which needs to be repaid.

Every time the Government spends more money than it receives in taxes, there is a budget overspend – the amount that needs to be borrowed to bridge the gap for that year’s spending.

Every time the Government overspends, the amount of money borrowed will add to the national debt.

Whatever Government we get, it will do what it tells us not to do: it will recklessly overspend, with no clear, explicit plan for repayment, and it will try to conceal this with political smokescreen-speak.

Girls’ poor performance in maths and science is down to sexism

The Sunday Times article on girls and maths
The Sunday Times reports that girls are performing poorly in maths and science and that the gender gap with boys is one of the biggest in the world.

“The gap between UK girls’ and boys’ performance in the Pisa science tests is 13 percentage points, compared with an average gap across all 67 countries of just one point, the OECD report will reveal next week. The gap in Colombia is 18 points and the UK is one of four countries with gaps of between 10 and 15 points.

“This weekend critics warned that British girls were being denied the chance to take up highly paid careers in industry because of sexist attitudes and poor teaching in schools, and said they hoped that the OECD report would serve as a wake-up call.”

Shirley commented: “Girls’ poor performance in maths and science in UK schools is absolutely because of sexism. Maths and science are a feminist issue. It is a myth that boys are better at them then girls.”

The OECD tables are due to be published on 5 March 2015.

Read the full article on The Times’ website (£)

Why Are Women Frightened of Maths?

The Cinnamon Club

The Cinnamon Club, Westminster

To plan Question Time at Langley Park School for Girls for 400-500 guests, yesterday I met Dr Anne Hudson (Headteacher of this school for 1,600 girls) and
Diane Carrington (Head of Governors), both adventurous blondes. We met for a fantastic meal at The Cinnamon Club, which is where MPs eat (saw several faces familiar from TV). Then we went to Portcullis House to update Nicky Morgan MP on the project. Nicky was very supportive, as always.

M is for Money

Megan Powell Vreeswijk

Megan Powell Vreeswijk

I met with Dr Samantha Callan last week to discuss our research project on why women fear maths – I’ve found that this ranges from timidity to being frozen like a rabbit in headlights. I’m the same – if someone points a finger at me, Lord Kitchener style, and asks me to do a sum in my head, my mind often freezes.

Samantha is researching this from a social-historical (factual) perspective and I’m looking at references in literature. It’s not often that you get work that’s totally absorbing, but this is.

I also met with Megan Powell Vreeswijk, the entrepreneurial advisor at Loughborough University, she is also as one of Nesta’s accredited Creative Enterprise Trainers for the British Council. Megan runs the very exciting project at Loughborough called The Studio. http://www.lboro.ac.uk/services/the-studio/

Loughborough is a designers’ university and its students are inventors. Megan advises students on how to make the most of their inventions: how to commercialise them, market them and how to set up their own companies.

Megan offers an online weekly consultation for students. This will lead to an e-book, which I’m working with her on, for first years on how to help them to look after their money. It will be called ‘M is for Money’. It’s part of a series of student ebooks, the first of which was called ‘U is for University’.

BIKER MENACE  Maybe city cyclists need to pass a highway code test, pay for a road license and display their number on the back of their bike – ready for CCTV cameras to record their breath-taking, lawbreaking stupidity, and save NHS bills for themselves and their victims.

Do what’s urgent and leave the rest till later

Money Stuff International editionI spent last week tackling the final knotty problems in preparing the Money Stuff international $ edition. The last problems are always the ones that take three times longer than expected. And because I was dreading them, my son Sebastian said that I should take five of the problems, put them in any order and do the one at the top!

My PA, Rosie, has been away for a week in Canada and owing to her absence, work has considerably slowed. So I took the opportunity to do my spring clean in the autumn.

I’ve always worked in businesses where priorities change constantly and many find this difficult to deal with. But not for me. After a breathless autumn spent doing what’s urgent – my mantra has always been “do what’s urgent and leave the rest till later” – this week ‘later’ came, and I’ve been sorting out my office – all the filing and even organising the pens!

Jenni Murray, BBC Woman's Hour

Does Sex Exist for the Older Woman?

Jenni Murray taks to Shirley Conran on BBC Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour. Hear the interview on the Radio 4 website.