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02/10/2014

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The innumerate headmistress

The innumerate headmistress does not amuse Anjana Ahuja

The innumerate headmistress does not amuse Anjana Ahuja.

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In retrospect, the clues were hidden in plain sight. The physics class supply teacher who exclaimed she didn’t know what a proton was. The sixth formers lined up to extol the school’s virtues who seemed to be studying mainly foreign languages. The relative absence of student work displaying a grasp of science or mathematics.

An uncomfortable feeling was brewing about this particular private school, magnified by the fact that my daughter and I happened to be traipsing around in the wake of a celebrity chef and his daughters. And then the denouement: a Q&A session at which a parent raised her hand and asked how many girls applied each year. To which the headmistress brusquely replied: ‘I’m a linguist. I don’t do numbers.’ Suddenly, it all fell into place more quickly than an episode of Midsomer Murders that has yet to reach the first ad break.

Did she really say that?

As the admissions tutor was summoned to answer this fiendishly Einsteinian imponderable, my sense of horror was deepening uncontrollably. Did she really say that? I whispered to my daughter, but, in reality, more to myself.

As the head waffled on, all I was thinking was this: Do I really want to pay four grand a term to send my daughter to a girl’s school where the head thinks it’s OK, charming even, to say ‘I don’t do numbers’ on stage, in front of hundreds of parents and their daughters, as if acquiring a basic grasp of numeracy was something so trifling and unimportant that, during her ascent from toddlerhood to the headship of a well-regarded London independent school, she had somehow failed to acquaint herself with an abacus? Does she regard girls who like maths as ‘not one of us’? Worse, does she secretly think they’re freaks?

Off the list

I collared the head of science later. ‘Not many sixth-formers doing maths and sciences – that’s a bit unusual for a girls’ school,’ I ventured. ‘Yes, I suppose the numbers are a bit low, although I don’t know why,’ she answered. ‘Not surprising when you’ve got a head who says she doesn’t do numbers,’ I smiled. ‘That was just a joke’, she replied, not smiling.

It made me feel depressed, because 11-year-old girls don’t have a terribly sophisticated sense of humour. But what they lack in sophistication they make up for in sensitivity.

The subliminal message from the head is obvious: ‘Hey girls, numbers really aren’t that important. I’m OK with you not doing them. Maybe you can reach positions of power and influence and joke in public about being innumerate too!’ It’s not even that Rosa likes maths; she hates it. But what if maths became her thing? Would she be cornered and pelted with foreign phrasebooks?

Maybe I over-reacted. When I recounted the episode to fellow mums, jaws dropped. When I rang my husband, he first laughed in disbelief. Then: ‘Cross the school off our list.’

Do the maths

Children rise to the expectations of the influential adults who surround them. In a school, the expectations – the whole ethos - trickles down from above. Of the 44 girls heading from that school to university last September, not a single one was reading mathematics – not even jointly with another subject. None chose engineering; one read physics. Ten girls chose foreign languages and linguistics.

Compare it to a similar girls’ school. Of 69 leavers, four chose mathematics, five chose engineering or physics, and seven took foreign languages. Coincidence? I think not, Inspector Barnaby.

So, my message to the innumerate headmistress? Look at your own Prospectus and do the maths. Then ask me why I’m not laughing.

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Anjana Ahuja
Anjana Ahuja is a science writer who contributes regularly to Prospect and the Daily Telegraph Twitter: @anjahuja
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