90 Years of maths

    Published: 22 June 2018

    As a Primary Maths Adviser, I spend my days out in our primary schools working with teachers and leaders on how to engage, enthuse and excite our young learners in the wonders of mathematics. When I talk to the children about their learning and see them in action, exploring and investigating ideas in the classroom, it never fails to impress me as to how articulate our youngest learners can be about some really (when you think about it) quite complex mathematical ideas. This has got me thinking… I wonder if these children fully appreciate the opportunities they may have in the future to use and apply this mathematical understanding. I know that when I was a child at school, marvelling at the one BBC computer that was wheeled in for us to programme an arrow on the original version of Logo (right 90, forward 30, right 90, repeat… and all that…), I certainly would never have imagined that some 25 years down the line (ish), someone would have used their understanding of mathematics to develop a ‘cloud’ that could store a ‘digital film’, taken on a ‘mobile telephone’ of someone flying a ‘drone’! It got me thinking about how much influence maths has on the world we live in now. Not only is maths part of our way of life in the constantly developing world of technology but also in the current world of employment that us children of 25 years ago (ish) are part of.

    It was then that I thought… I know just the man to speak to – my granddad – John Plant. Born in 1928 and FULL of tales to tell, he proved to be a fantastic source of information about how maths has influenced his life across the decades, in ways he would never have imagined possible when he was a young boy growing up in Hackney in the 1930s.




    John age 7

    When I was a young boy in 1935, I used maths to work out if my father had given me the amount of pocket money he had promised. It was not too difficult. The amount was one penny per week; always given on a Friday. It could comprise of one whole penny, two halfpennies or four farthings. There would be ructions if he tried to give me just three farthings or a half penny and one farthing. This was probably my first use of mathematics.

     Money was not decimalised in those times and there was no such thing as 1p, 10p, 50p or 100p (£1).

    There was a £1 note and a 10 shilling note. There were 240 pennies in a £1 note – 480 half pennies or 960 farthings. To make it a little more complicated for a seven year old, there could also be: four crowns, eight half-crowns, ten florins, twenty shillings, forty sixpences or eighty thru-penny (three-penny) pieces in every £1.

    In addition, there were £5 and £10 notes. Although, as most working men earned about £2 per week, very few such notes were ever seen.

    When I was at school, a typical mental arithmetic question might be: If your shopping bill came to nine shillings, seven pence and three farthings, how much change would you get from a ten shilling note?

    (I did check with John that there would indeed be change here and apparently there would be 4 pennies and 1 farthing change – I will leave this to you to double check!!)

    teenage john

    I was 14 years old on the 13th of December 1942 and it was now time to start work. The war was on and very little schooling had taken place since September 1939. But I was fourteen and that meant I was old enough to start work. With so many men in the forces, there were plenty of jobs available.

    My father was a gas fitter by trade but thought that electricity was the thing of the future. With this in mind, he arranged for me to be interviewed by the personnel manager at the Hackney Electric Co. I attended the interview in my very first long-trousered suit and probably because there were no other candidates… I got the job. The pay was 15 /- (15 shillings) per week. That was for the five weekdays plus Saturday morning.

    An immediate problem then presented itself. I had done very little schooling since the war started and therefore had very little knowledge of mathematics or English – both of which would be needed.

    For example:

    What size and amount of wiring would be needed for a particular job?

    What size electric motor would be needed to drive a certain piece of machinery for a particular job?

    How would I fill in time sheets and claim overtime payments? (I looked forward to this because it was two and a half (old) pence per hour.)

    Then I would need to write up a report on the work done. In the first instance, this would be done by the electrician who I was to work with but in due course, as an electrician myself, it would be my job.

    John young man With these things in mind, the electric company required me to attend evening school and obtain some qualifications in English, mathematics and Technical Drawing. This I did and, despite being interrupted during classes (and during one particular examination, by a flying bomb landing nearby), I duly gained a pass in each subject. I could now tell the difference between a rhombus and an isosolese triangle (although I never did learn how to spell it) and calculate what seven eighths of nine tenths was and, if necessary, demonstrate it in a drawing. At the age of 21, I passed out as a fully qualified electrician and had, what I thought, was a job for life.


    I am now twenty-three years old, married and beginning to think about my next career move. I tried a couple of selling jobs and seem to have had a knack of having things to sell that people wanted to buy. Eventually, I ended up working for an insurance company as an agent. I soon realised that this was a business in which, if I had the knowledge, I could go a long way.

    As an agent, it was simple arithmetic. Although I would still have to work out in my head how much change to give the customer if they gave me three half-crowns and the premium to take was six shillings and nine pence ha’penny. There were no hand-held calculators in those days.

    As a manager, there came the additional need to organise and control staff and to ensure that monies collected were properly accounted for. As a Divisional Manager, the ability to organise staff and ensure that premiums paid in were properly accounted for was necessary but as yet, I was still getting by on the understanding of mathematics that I had.

    However, the next step for an ambitious person, still not yet fifty years old, was a promotion to The Board of Management. It was a big jump and a far better knowledge of mathematics would be essential.

    What would I have to know as a member of a board of management?


    Investment return

    On the investment side of the business, I might have to find out how much a person aged, say, 24 had to save each month to receive a pension at 65 years old of £10,000 per year if 4% interest could be earned and expenses were £200 per year. Compound interest, simple interest; my maths would need to be more advanced.

    Mortality Rates and Life Expectancy

    How long would my 24 year old live? Would he die before he was 65 or would he live to be 100? How much money (premium) would the company have to charge to ensure it could meet a claim if the insured person died earlier than expected?


    What would be the cost of collecting the premiums, paying the claims and investing the insurance fund?

    It soon became obvious to me that the knowledge gained in my earlier studies was not going to be sufficient if I was to go further in the insurance business. So, once again, I went back to evening school – this time to learn about the intricacies of life insurance. The maths was now more complicated and the English more precise. Everything had to be more exact.


    It took some four years to complete all twelve examinations successfully but on the 1st September 1980, I was elected a Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute. The years of study and the consequent knowledge that I had acquired of the theory and practice of the life insurance industry had made me a valuable asset of the company I worked for and in due course, I went from Agent to Manager to Divisional Manager and eventually to Board Member of a large insurance company. Could I have been as successful without my knowledge of mathematics? I very much doubt it. Indeed, I could not have done the job.

    I am now (almost) ninety years old. I retired from work when I was 66 and still use my maths from time to time. I play the card game ‘Bridge’ and can easily count up the number of tricks I have made. Calculating my pension benefit is also well within my capacity.

    I am still able to calculate how far away a storm is by counting off the number of seconds between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder. Remembering where I left the car in the car park is becoming a bit of a problem.

    But as for all the young whipper snappers wondering if it’s worth doing mathematics - don’t hesitate! There are many occupations where a skilled mathematician can be so indispensable to an employer that job security and good pay are guaranteed.

    Not only has maths played an integral role in my working life, it never fails to be around at home either. There are countless technological wonders that have been developed using mathematics in my lifetime that now form a part of ‘normal’ everyday life. Never in my wildest dreams, when I was a young boy in 1935, did I imagine that I would be using an iPad, sending emails or using a platform that allows me to play online chess with my grandson in Japan. Nor that my lovely wife of 68 years would be using a digital timer to make sure that my rice pudding reached optimum creaminess in our electric (my father was right!) oven.

    John Charles Plant



    With this in mind, imagine what our children of today will be doing with their maths in 80 years’ time. For those who, at the age of 6, can explain things like…

    pupils maths

     or, at the age of 9, things like…

    pupils maths

    The sky is the limit!

    Keep up the amazing work primary teachers. You are equipping the children of today with the flexibility of mathematical thinking that will take them successfully into their future. What job could be more rewarding than that!

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