Time to give numeracy the literacy treatment

13 Mar 2012 www.mikebakereducation.co.uk

by Wendy Jones

Earlier this month I helped launch a new charity dedicated to improving standards of numeracy in the UK. National Numeracy – www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk - aims to do what the National Literacy Trust, the Reading Agency, Booktrust and others have done for literacy.

The interest was phenomenal. Admittedly, we had a story to tell – 17 million adults, or almost half of the working-age population in England, with the numeracy skills roughly those expected of children at primary school (i.e. below Level 1, in official terminology). That means they may not be able to check pay and deductions on a wage slip, understand bus timetables or pay household bills.

And – significantly - numeracy levels have worsened since the last similar survey in 2003, while literacy has improved: those with Level 2 or above (equivalent to GCSE A*-C) up from 44% to 57% in literacy, down from 26% to 22% in numeracy.

Hand-wringing but no progress

But poor numeracy is not a new story and even our figure of 17 million was recycled – the skills for life survey headlines were first published (rather quietly, it has to be said) in a report from Vince Cable’s department in December. They attracted relatively little attention. In a way, the recycling is the story. We’ve known about low numeracy for decades but, in spite of periodic hand-wringing, things have barely shifted.

We know too what the impact of poor numeracy is – on the economy (KPMG put it at an annual £2.4 billion) and on the individual. If you’ve got low numeracy, you’re twice as likely to be excluded from school, twice as likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to suffer from depression – and some of the differences remain when you take account of other factors such as poor literacy.

By numeracy we don’t of course mean just arithmetic, although that’s part of it. It’s having the skill and confidence to use maths and think mathematically in everyday life. It’s knowing that if an item is marked with a 20% discount, buying three items isn’t going to get you a 60% discount. (I remember reading that as a genuinely recorded example of innumerate thinking.)

A peculiarly British problem

Underpinning this tolerance of poor numeracy (and yes, it is tolerated in a way that poor literacy increasingly is not) is a longstanding and perhaps peculiarly British problem: it’s ok here to say ‘I’m no good at maths’ in a way that it isn’t in most other parts of the world. 

This attitude sets in early – and sticks. There’s evidence that things often start to go wrong at primary school, more precisely, some would say, between the ages of seven and nine. Natural enthusiasm in the early years is converted into boredom or even fear by the beginning of secondary school and that leads to fewer young people doing maths beyond 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than in almost any other developed country (Scotland does a little better, perhaps because of a broader curriculum in later secondary).

So what is it about the British and maths? There are probably multiple root causes – the way children are taught or teachers trained, the failure to attract enough mathematicians with a gift for teaching, the leftovers of a humanities-biased education system, too much early specialisation.  And all of that sits within broader cultural assumptions which, still, don’t accord science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications the respect they get in other countries.

At National Numeracy, the view is that no-one – child or adult – should be written off as being no good at maths. Everyone can learn to get better at it. On that basis, the new charity is setting out to bang the drum loudly in order to change attitudes. In terms of practical projects, it will also collaborate with others to spread the word on what does work and identify gaps where new thinking is needed.

Others have tried some of this before, but never as single-mindedly as National Numeracy aims to. For a long time, numeracy has sat within the shadow of literacy: the debate about basic skills nearly always centred on reading and writing. The recent improvement in literacy is therefore to be welcomed - it shows what you can do if public attention and effort are thrown at a problem. The moment may now have arrived for a concerted effort to do the same for numeracy. I hope so.

Wendy Jones is a trustee of National Numeracy and formerly a BBC education correspondent and head of policy at BBC Learning.


User Comments

David Pye - 13 Mar 2012

Numeracy - Functional Skills needs to Improve

Can only agree with the essence of what Wendy is saying. From a teacher's point of view I feel two of the main contributors to the reduction in standards with basic numeracy skills over the last twenty years are a reflection of the reduction in the rigour and purpose of the exam system. One example of this is the new Functional Skills tests; if a student can achieve a pass at level 2 by not actually completing many of the questions with the correct answers but they can show the correct processes then to me we are continually reinforcing to students that as long as you have a go then getting the correct solution isn't important and thus they are then taught to pass the exam not to understand the actual content. Another example is the continuation of exam specifications forcing students to follow a curriculum that we cannot "sell to them" any more and because of the unnecessary breadth enforced on us through the National Curriculum, to give them a broader experience, the depth of understanding of the basics is not always practical to reinforce in the need of teachers to finish an exams specification's content, to meet the student's needs of that magic C (or is it the school’s needs in the ever greater pressures of OFSTED) they are led to believe is all they need as a passport to future career choices. I also agree with Wendy that all students can potentially develop good numeracy / functional skills but the system has to give teachers and students the resources and time to develop an engaging useful series of experiences beyond "the exam"....

Ursula - 13 Mar 2012


I was no good at maths because I was told so. Hundreds of times. By my maths teacher. "You're a stupid girl" he used to say as he threw the board rubber at me. I believed him. Luckily I realised he was a power-crazed victim of a patriarchial system which reproduced his own problem. I wasn't brave enough until I reached age 30, but eventually I found a new teacher of maths who was fabulous and re-did my GCSE maths - loving every minute of it - and achieving the highest grade in the county that year.
There a gender element to this issue, as well as a deeply embedded British cultural one. Something that we all have a duty to confront and do something about.

Jan Chambers - 13 Mar 2012


I agree with much of Ursula’s mail having had a similar secondary school experience of mathematics teaching. I didn’t really begin to understand maths until I began teaching it at primary school level. I would also add that I think a huge part of the problem is that there seems to be no desire to develop a love or understanding of mathematics as opposed to teaching numeracy competency which is but a small part of maths. A fraction of it even. Maths is about understanding the whole structure of the universe not simply about the 4 rules of number. Numeracy is important of course but maths is something much more.

Rebecca Hanson - 13 Mar 2012

Bang what drum?

What are you actually planning to do to improve things? This post makes it sound like you're going to bang the drum of shouting about how bad everything is.

I'd like to be reassured that the author of this article actually understand the pedagogical strategies which do work.

Paddy O'Dea - 15 Mar 2012

An extra-curricular approach to lighting the fires of enthusiasm for maths

That's some task National Numeracy is taking on there! Good luck and we'll support you however we can by getting your information out to everyone we work with. At the Learning Exchange - www.learning-exchange.org.uk - we hope that everyone involved will spend some time focusing on how a love for maths can be engendered through great extra-curricular programmes that are accessible to all young people from an early age.

Kevin - 15 Mar 2012

The problem with maths in schools is..

Is maths a subject or a way at looking at and interpreting our environment? Taught as a subject its like a documentary, it tells you, it informs you it may even engage you but it does not involve you. Humans learn as a result of a need, create the need and we will learn, it's a matter of survival. I believe maths is a way we look at and interact with our world, it has a language of its own (often sneaking words from that other way of looking at and interacting with the world - literacy)adding to some confusion at times. This is where it begins to fall apart for poor old maths. We have a language problem as well as a conceptual one. So when the teacher asks if we know what he means what do we say, "In the middle man!". The ones who get the conceptual side of maths, who look a the world around them and interact in a way that brings both scientific meaning and beauty are mathematicians. Unfortunately one of the few places they can continue and share this unique way of looking at the world is in our classrooms and so they do. The trouble is they are not talking the same language as many others who explore their world linguistically. We now have a translation problem on our hands. The best maths teachers cross this divide and welcome people into their world and build the confidence to explore it and share its wonder and beauty. Those teachers who fail to manage this teach maths as a subject and do not reach those outside of their world. What students of these teachers find is that maths is not for them, they can no more do maths than speak Martian and don't mind admitting it because it makes them a member of a rather big club and we all need a sense of belonging don't we!

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