Carol Vorderman: My maths manifesto for the nation – The Spectator

A glittering TV career, an MBE, various honorary degrees, tens of thousands of TikTok followers and the only person to win the (now cancelled) Rear of the Year award multiple times. There are many accolades that Carol Vorderman has been afforded during her 40-year career, yet few mean more to her than her claim to having possibly taught more people alive in Britain than anyone else.
Through books, tapes and online classes, the former Countdown star has – according, at least, to my remedial fag-pack maths – educated more than a million people since the late 1980s. She started when the national curriculum was introduced in 1988 with instructional classes on VHS, and she’s subsequently taught generations of adults and children. ‘It’s quite funny,’ she says. ‘I get approached by people in their late thirties and forties who remember buying a copy in Woolworths when they passed their GCSEs, and they tell me that they’ve still got an old video in the attic.’
Her project the Maths Factor, an online tutorial hub for children, gained more than 500,000 registered users after becoming wildly popular during lockdown. However, the success of the site, launched in 2010, came with its own IT challenges. ‘It cost us a fortune because we had servers and then teams and teams of people on it,’ Vorderman, 61, says. ‘We had to go from tens of thousands [of users] to hundreds of thousands every month, so we had a surge of buying extra servers in Sri Lanka. We worked very, very hard on it.’
Nevertheless, despite her role in teaching maths during the dark days of the pandemic, her efforts have not been recognised at any official level, something she is keen to point out. ‘Not a word from the Department for Education… It is poor form.’
The snub clearly stings and it’s apparent during our conversation that she has aspirations to be more involved in education at a public policy level. ‘I would love it – this is the first time I’ve ever said it openly – to have some kind of influence on education policy today,’ she says. ‘I really feel as though I have enough knowledge and experience to benefit children and their families.’
Vorderman is no stranger to politics: she has worked with both Labour and Conservative administrations, championing, with David Blunkett, the world’s first online anti-grooming law in 2001, before heading a taskforce eight years later for David Cameron on the teaching of maths in schools. This produced a government-backed report in 2011. Through such work she was an early supporter of online teaching to supplement traditional classrooms. And the pandemic gave Vorderman a chance to learn online herself: she took Welsh language lessons throughout lockdown. ‘In some way, I feel that I truly have something to offer – hopefully I’ve proven that. I’m not a party-political animal, I’m just very practical – it’s about who is in power and who can give the money to do these things.’
Could we see Baroness Vorderman as a crossbench peer in the Lords sometime, perhaps? She laughs: ‘Well, that’s not for me to say.’ A cursory glance at her social media suggests that she’s unlikely to get any kind of title in Boris Johnson’s resignation honours, however. A fortnight before he decided to step down, she published a post calling him a ‘shameful, corrupt, lying prime minister’ and demanding he quit. When I ask her about this, she recalls some of the posher, somewhat immature students she met at university: ‘When I watch Boris on anything, it just reminds me of people like that.’
Vorderman, who went to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1978, was the first in her family to go to university. She is also thought to have been the first woman from a North Wales comprehensive school to get to Cambridge. It’s quite the journey for the Catholic schoolgirl who grew up in a single-parent family as one of three kids on free school meals. She attributes much of her success to Mr Parry, the ‘extraordinary’ maths teacher at her Rhyl comprehensive school: ‘Every single one of the kids in his class got an O-level in maths and most got an A grade.’
Her pride in her alma mater is clear: ‘My college was set up in 1596, particularly to draw from the non-wealthy, the non-aristocrats, and it has continued that tradition in Sidney Sussex.’ There were only about 300 engineering students the year that Carol arrived, of which she estimates just four were women. Despite coming from an unlikely background, she doesn’t recall feeling intimidated by her peers: ‘When I was at these parties with these posh kids from whatever schools, I just thought they were very childish. I had been going to night clubs in Manchester from the age of 15 and my boyfriend drove a Porsche and we were out rally driving every weekend, living that kind of life like older people did.
‘So when I went down, I thought “How childish they all are, hopping into bed with each other and all of this. Good grief!” It just knocked out any kind of class stuff. But where society said I should have been in awe of people from certain schools, I wasn’t at all – I just didn’t think that way.’
Vorderman has previously criticised tuition fees and former targets that state 50 per cent of all school-leavers should go to university. As a maths enthusiast, you might expect her to support Rishi Sunak’s proposal during the leadership race to make the subject mandatory until 18. But she thinks the opposite: ‘It just doesn’t serve our young society well at all. What about the more than half who aren’t going to university? They’re the lost ones. I get so angry about it. Yes, those at the top need assistance. But what about that great big chunk in the middle? They are often forgotten.
‘What is the point of trying to teach trigonometry to somebody who will never use it, who can hardly recite the [times] tables, who doesn’t understand percentages? Surely it would be better spending more years doing practical things like learning about the tax system? It’s a nonsense to just keep trying to teach strict maths repeatedly.’
How, then, would Vorderman help improve maths standards in British schools? ‘I think that primary school teachers, 96 per cent gave up maths at GCSE level and at very often quite a low level. That’s a shame – I’m not pointing a finger at them. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the system. So I think that everybody would benefit if they received more assistance and good training, which they can pass on to children. Because, as we’ve proven on the Maths Factor, you need clarity, you need to really understand what you’re teaching.’
From her experience running online classes, confidence is key. ‘Part of it is just building that confidence, because in maths, it gets knocked out of them by the age of six because they’re behind. As their confidence builds they think: “I can do this.” And very often we get emails, hundreds of them in September, when the child has gone back to school and many of them are at the top of the class.’
One educational issue about which Vorderman is passionate is children with learning disabilities. She has two kids: her daughter, Katie, followed her to Cambridge, but her son, Cameron, was deemed ‘unteachable’ at school and suffered ‘endless bullying’ for his ADD, ADHD and ‘off the scale’ dyslexia.
‘There are a wonderful group of people who are trying their best, but there simply aren’t the resources,’ she says. ‘There just isn’t the money.
‘In Wales now it’s taking two years to get a diagnosis for ADHD and it’s tragic. I spoke recently about this with Rob Rinder [TV’s Judge Rinder] because in prisons, 78 per cent of people have some form of learning difficulty, whether it’s dyslexia or something else. And yet 40 per cent of self-made entrepreneurs are also dyslexic. So it just shows you that you can go one way or another.
‘And I’ve seen it with my son, even though he had the very best that I could buy him, it was still terribly difficult – society doesn’t accept them. But that gap in development continues to grow unless you catch them at the right point.’
After years of struggle, Cameron earned his master’s degree last year in animation and video effects. Vorderman wrote online after his graduation: ‘I could not be more proud of him.’
Next month will see Vorderman return to both her former Cambridge college and the new incarnation of her old school. At the former she’s launching an eponymous dining hall for Sidney Sussex students – ‘the Carol Vorderman buttery’ – and at the latter opening a new robotics laboratory. She is also sponsoring a series of bursaries for Stem degrees at Swansea University to enable more maths-loving students like her from England and Wales to study there. A series of £2,000 scholarships will be awarded on condition that the recipients go, like Vorderman, back to their old schools to encourage others to study the subject.
It’s a tribute to the institutions that made her rise possible – and one that she hopes will inspire others. ‘It is my passion and I get the greatest joy out of it and seeing people do well,’ she says. ‘Maths changed my world for the better and I want in some way to help those who are trying to do the same.’
Question 1
June 2022 Paper 1HQ22
The diagram is made of three circles, each of radius 4cm.
The centres of the circles are A, B and C, such that ABC is a straight line.
Work out the total area of the two shaded regions.
Give your answer in terms of π.

Question 2
June 2018 Paper 3H Q19 (calculator)
Here are two right-angled triangles.
Given that tane=tanf, find the value of x.

Question 3
November 2018 Paper 1H Q22 (non-calculator)
There are only green pens and blue pens in a box.
There are three more blue pens than green pens in the box.
There are more than 12 pencils in the box.
Simon is going to take at random two pens from the box.
The probability that Simon will take two pens of the same colour is 27/55.
Work out the number of green pens in the box.

James Heale is The Spectator’s diary editor.


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