Zero as a Placeholder

“Mum, did you know that MATHS stands for Mental Abuse To Humans?”

Upon hearing this, my mind is whisked back to the summer of 1992, where I am stood in the garden merrily throwing my maths books onto a bonfire after my GCSEs. Maths back then was all, “If you have four pencils and I have seven apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof? Answer: Purple, because aliens don’t wear hats.” Nothing could beat the thought of never having to endure another maths lesson for as long as I lived… or so I thought.

Fast forward nearly thirty years and things are very different. Without having to cross my fingers behind my back, I can genuinely say that I like maths now. I have often wondered what caused this monumental shift in opinion and have concluded that it is because I actually understand it now. At school, I could barely keep my eyes open in maths lessons, yet now I am happily spouting off about the benefits of “chunking”(a method of long division) and “partitioning”(splitting numbers into tens and ones) calculating the cost of my shopping trip in my head and even teaching others how to do sums – quite successfully!

We now teach our children WHY we use zero as a placeholder in long multiplication. They don’t do it just because the teacher said so, like I did. Children nowadays understand that we aren’t carrying “a one” when we go over the ten in column addition, it is actually “a ten”. So how can it be that more children are falling behind in maths than ever before, with requests for maths tuition far outweighing all the other subjects put together?

The answer lies in the over-loaded and fast paced National Curriculum. There is literally so much to cover that teachers, who want to do more, simply do not have time to teach concepts thoroughly enough. Only the brightest mathematicians seem to grasp objectives before the whole class must be moved onto the next topic. This causes enormous gaps in mathematical knowledge, which hinders progress and impacts attainment. Unless action is taken, these gaps just get bigger and bigger. In most cases, just a few extra consolidation activities on an objective is all that is required. Many teachers work through their breaks, sitting with small groups of children, dealing with misconceptions. Like the children they teach, practitioners are under immense pressure with SATs (Years 2 and 6), termly tests for data (all years) and Multiplication Checks (Year 4) to worry about. They must cover the entire curriculum to give their students the opportunity to do well but within a very small time frame.

Many parents try to provide extra help at home but struggle with the new methods that children are using, which are so different to the way they themselves were taught. Add in the fact that is it nigh on impossible to teach your own children (I speak from experience!) and this can make doing homework a terrible chore. The Internet can also provide assistance, in the form of online games (Topmarks) and websites such as BBC. Bitesize. (which also has explanations for parents).

The most rewarding part of my job, as a teacher and tutor, is seeing the joy on my pupils’ faces when they suddenly “get it”, when a student comes in to tell me that they scored highly in their arithmetic test for the first time ever or the little girl who informs me that she is currently top of the year in ‘Times Table Rockstars’ having been near the bottom for months.

If your child is finding maths a challenge, my advice would be: Don’t give up. Maths helps us think analytically and to have better reasoning abilities. These learning skills are so important because they help us solve problems and look for solutions now and in future careers.

I would love to hear your own experiences of the teaching and learning of maths and welcome any feedback or comments you may have. Please email us at

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