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.