TOM UTLEY: If I can remember my times tables anyone can

Nobody knows better than I that an inability to do simple mental arithmetic is a crippling handicap to carry through life.

As I’ve confessed before, I’ve been a sufferer throughout my 64 years on this Earth and was long ago driven to the conclusion that, in my case, the part of the brain that’s supposed to cope with numbers is simply missing.

Indeed, hardly a day goes by when my disability doesn’t cause me another inconvenience or humiliation.

Even with the help of a calculator, I find percentages an impenetrable mystery, which makes working out tips in a restaurant or after a cab ride a torment to me. (I was brought up to believe that half a crown in the pound is about right — that’s 12.5p to younger readers — an impossible figure for an innumerate to work with.)

As for completing a tax return, that’s far beyond my capability. So, too, is converting pounds into a foreign currency, or vice-versa, when I’m on holiday. God knows how many times I’ve been short-changed or ripped off, because I certainly don’t.

But perhaps the Almighty’s cruellest trick on me was to make me seriously good in my youth at only two competitive games, both of which require a degree of competence in mental arithmetic. 

Nick Gibb appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain to promote the policy and was put on the spot by host Jeremy Kyle who asked him the answer to ‘eight times nine’

One was darts — and any pride I used to derive from scoring two treble 19s and a double-top was quickly deflated by my humiliatingly tortured attempts to work out the total and subtract it from 501.     

As for those who seem able to calculate in a flash exactly what they need for a three-dart finish, well, I’m lost in admiration.

My other forte was Scrabble, which I still enjoy to this day. But again, the pleasure I get from laying down a humdinger of a word is soon blown away by my family’s hoots of derision as I struggle to work out my score.

One brief diversion. When I mentioned Scrabble to a drinking companion at lunchtime yesterday, he told me he had a friend who used to play it in the pub with gangsters from the London underworld.

None of them could spell, he said, but no one dared challenge a fellow player, for fear of having his face slashed or a bullet between the eyes.

My friend said the sight of the board at the end of the game, with its dozens of misspellings, was hilariously surreal. I pass the thought on to Quentin Tarantino, for use if he’s looking for a little light relief to insert into his next movie.

But where was I? Ah, yes, maths. Though I’m utterly incompetent, and the simplest of sums takes me five times longer than anyone else, I thank my lucky stars that I’ve been blessed with one gift that generally enables me to arrive at the correct answer in the end (albeit after a great deal of agonised biro-chewing).

Sometime in my early childhood — I don’t remember exactly when, but I can’t have been more than six or seven — I was made to learn my times tables, chanting them in unison with the rest of the class, as we all had to do in those far-off days of the late Fifties.

They’ve stayed in my head ever since, long after everything else my hapless maths teachers tried to impart — from simultaneous equations to matrices, logarithms, lowest common multiples, highest common factors, sines, cosines and tangents — has dissolved into a meaningless blur.

True, I still couldn’t tell you off the top of my head that nine eights are 72. So grave is my handicap that, to this day, I can reach the answer only after reciting the whole table to myself: ‘Once nine is nine, two nines are 18, three nines are 27…’

It’s a hugely laborious process, I grant you — but, as I say, I get there eventually. Indeed, those tables have been a life-support system, an essential tool to help me hobble through a world in which maths problems may ambush us at any moment. I’d be totally lost without it.

Indeed, my first reaction was astonishment when I heard this week that the school standards minister is introducing a compulsory test to ensure that all primary school pupils know their multiplication tables up to 12 by the age of nine. 

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t surprised that Nick Gibb attaches great importance to tables. Far from it. What puzzled me was how we’ve come to a point where he could think his initiative necessary.

Are children really no longer taught and tested on their tables? Isn’t age nine late to be checking whether they’ve picked up this basic element of the three Rs? If pupils haven’t mastered their times tables by then, what have their teachers been teaching them over the four years since they started at primary school?

This being the mad modern world, perhaps I should have been less surprised by the affronted reaction of teachers’ unions and members of the education ‘blob’.

After all, they always react furiously to ministers’ initiatives — particularly if the minister in question happens to be a Conservative and talking common sense.

Some said being forced to learn tables would be too ‘stressful’ for many pupils, or that it risked ‘knocking the fun’ out of maths. Others argued that having to prepare nine-year-olds for the test would put intolerable pressure on teachers already bowed down by Whitehall-imposed paperwork.

I must say that in the past, I’ve had a sneaking sympathy with complaints that politicians interfere too much in the classroom.

I don’t much like the idea of a national curriculum, because it strikes me as dangerous that every child in the country should be taught exactly the same thing, in exactly the same way.

Are children really no longer taught and tested on their tables? Isn’t age nine late to be checking whether they’ve picked up this basic element of the three Rs? (stock photo)

Take the suffragettes, about whom the massed ranks of the BBC’s hackettes have been swooning in sentimental rapture to mark this centenary year of the Act that gave women the vote.

With the Blob in charge of the agenda, how many of today’s children are even aware of the powerful case for suggesting that this gang of vandals and arsonists actually delayed women’s suffrage by several years?

Women might have won the vote before the Great War if MPs had not been understandably reluctant to be seen to be surrendering to terrorism. 

Indeed, anyone who believes in the rule of law should shudder at the idea that Home Secretary Amber Rudd — the minister in charge of public order — should be considering pardoning these women for serious crimes that remain on the Statute Book.

Yet the education Blob and the BBC are rewriting history according to the rules of political correctness, leaving schoolchildren in the dark about what happened.

So, no, we should beware of allowing Whitehall to impose a uniform set of instructions, laying down what should be taught and how.

As a general rule, the more variety we have in the subject-matter taught — and the more different types of schools, selective and non-selective — the less chance there will be of everyone making the same mistake.

But that caveat notwithstanding, surely anyone with an ounce of sense can see that, even in this age of the ever-helpful computer, all primary school children need to know their times tables if they’re to have any chance of getting on in life.

As for the idea that learning tables may be too stressful for young children, any parent can tell you that the under-nines have astonishingly receptive minds, capable of absorbing vast amounts of information with ease.

That goes for nursery rhymes, song lyrics, the details of every football player in the Championship —even the names and dates of all the kings and queens of England, if anyone bothers to teach them any more.

We can all testify, too, that what goes into a young mind tends to stay there for life. Indeed, if even this functional innumerate, allergic to numbers, can remember the multiplication tables he learned in his early childhood, then anyone can.

So good luck to Mr Gibb in his efforts to face down the Blob. In my book, knowing our tables by heart is a life-skill as vital as being able to read — and failing to teach it is a form of child cruelty.