Poor numeracy is a national problem

Poor numeracy is blighting Britain’s economic performance and ruining lives, says a new charity launched to champion better maths skills.

Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News

National Numeracy, which a a UK based charity, reports that poor many people are struggling with their daily lives such as understanding payslips, train timetables and shopping bills. Low standards in numeracy is a problem not only at a personal level, but also for the national economy.

A badge on honour

As a nation us Brits are not ashamed to state that we “cannot do maths”. I find this very strange. It is true that mathematics is a hard subject that encompasses lots of abstract ideas, but here we are really talking about basic numeracy. People are quite happy to tell you that they did very badly in maths at school, but seem less so with other subjects.

For example, not being able to read and write is considered shameful. People will go to quite some lengths to hide the fact they cannot read. The same cannot be said of basic numeracy skills.

In my opinion this has to change. It must nationally be seen as important to have basic numeracy skills.

We need to find imaginative ways to switch them [school children] on to maths and teach them to be proud to be numerate.

Rachel Riley, presenter of TV’s Countdown

Rachel is absolutely right here. School children should be excited by mathematics and its power, not ashamed and being seen as a nerd.

The Research

The Skills for Life survey (2011) measured the numeracy levels of 16 to 65 year-olds in England. Without going into any detail, there appears a strong link with general “quality of life” and poor numeracy skills. For example earnings and overall education are lower if you have poor numeracy skills.

Rather than just quote the study, have a look at the analysis by National Numeracy here.

We have a bit of a chicken and the egg situation going on here. Is it the social problems coursing the low educational aspirations or vice versa?

My final analysis

It does seem true that low numeracy skills are not only a personal issue but a much greater social and economic one. It is important that as a nation we address this and see low numeracy skills in individuals as the system failing them.


BBC News report

National Numeracy homepage

9 thoughts on “Poor numeracy is a national problem”

  1. The problem is getting people to see the point of maths, to see any personal value in it.
    The standard maths education is geared toward churning out industry operatives rather than providing people with a personal skill so not surprising that people struggle to get into it.
    Policy makers seem to presuppose calculus as the final objective of a general maths education, which maybe isn’t a realistic goal for a culture in which maths apptitude is a pejorative.
    Teaching to the students needs i.e. make it relatable, rather than teaching to industry needs, would enable students to more cheerily get in amongst it.

    Maybe aim for statistics and probability rather than calc?

    1. I agree 100% that maths education should be taught in a way that makes it relatable. Why should I have any interest in it when I see no applicable use to it? If schools had taught me where long division, square roots and all that other maths jargon could be used and what for perhaps i’d have grasped the concept of it and done well in the subject.

      Instead what we are given is ” here is the formula, this is how you do it” which is all fine and dandy on a technical level but it’s hardly motivating when you feel you are being taught something you will rarely – if ever, use.

      Schools should teach where formulaes are useful, as well as how to do them.

    2. @crong: thank you for your input. However, what I will say is that we are not really talking about an education in mathematics as such. The concepts that a lot of people seem to be missing are one of basic numeracy. It is quite right that a mathematics education post 16 should include lots of calculus.

      I would say that very basic stats and probability are also very basic mathematics skills, though they are one step further than elementary numeracy.

  2. But my point is that maths is not respected. And since it’s not respected people don’t give a damn about learning it.

    So the challenge is to work out why and to redress.

    My conjecture is that our educational system emphasises the science rather than the art of mathematics. But the reality is that most students are drawn to expressive, intuitive subjects rather than more rigorous, disciplined stuff.
    So why not start them out with what they want? Give them intuition and leave symbol pushing as a choice.
    This could serve to encourage middling students. And if more students enjoy and have good memories of their maths education, surely we would see an erosion of this culture of defiant pride in innumeracy.
    I don’t think the problem is addressable by isolating the group that it particularly affects, since this would require instilling a different attitude than everyone around them.

    1. But my point is that maths is not respected. And since it’s not respected people don’t give a damn about learning it.

      Maybe respected is not quite the right word. I think that a lot of people simply decide that mathematics is too hard and that they will never understand any part of it. There is a defeatist attitude from the start.

      That said, if you can motivate students and show how mathematics shapes our understanding of the world the subject may get more attention. Though, the report I link to is talking about basic maths skills as part of overall life skills. From this perspective helping people with budgeting, understanding bills, how to read timetables for buses & trains and similar is more important than popularising deeper mathematical ideas.

      1. Good point. Sorry.
        But why you don’t think education policy is a legitimate arena in which to address the problem?

        1. I think that educational policy is part of the solution. This starts in schools, but has to continue into adult learning. Wider than this we probability need more public engagement activities to show how maths is fun, cool and fundamental to humanity.

          I don’t claim to have any real practical answers here. However, I think if we really want to improve numeracy and basic maths skills in the general populous then the answer lies not just in schooling.

          The first part to finding an answer is to admit there is a problem.

  3. Seems getting people to admit there’s a problem IS the problem, really.

    a couple ofyears ago i took an exam as a private candidate at my local college, and i had to fill in a bunch of administrative paperwork. When i asked how much i owed by the colleges fee system, the guy disdainfully hedged that he was terrible at maths. And this is a college lecturer.

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