Poor numeracy 'blights the economy and ruins lives'

 

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

The group, National Numeracy, says millions of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable, or pay a household bill.

It wants to challenge a mindset which views poor numeracy as a "badge of honour".

It aims to emulate the success of the National Literacy Trust.

This has helped improve reading and writing standards since it was set up nearly 20 years ago.

Government figures show almost half the working population of England have only primary school maths skills.

National Numeracy quotes from research suggesting weak maths skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness.

'British disease'

A YouGov poll for the charity suggests that while four out of five people would be embarrassed to confess to poor literacy skills, just over half would feel the same about admitting poor maths skills.

Chris Humphries, chairman of National Numeracy and a former chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, said: "It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say: 'I can't do maths.' It is a peculiarly British disease which we aim to eradicate.

"It doesn't happen in other parts of the world. With encouragement and good teaching, everyone can improve their numeracy."

Mr Humphries said just 15% of Britons studied maths after the age of 16, compared with 50-100% in most developed nations.

He pointed to research by KPMG auditors suggesting that annual costs to the public purse arising from a failure to master basic numeracy skills amounted to £2.4bn.

"We are paying for this in our science, technology and engineering industries, but also in people's own ability to earn funds and manage their lives," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Many people could not get jobs because they struggled to read graphs and interpret documents, while plumbers unable to do the calculations required to install an energy-efficient boiler might lose income, he suggested.

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BT chairman Sir Mike Rake, a supporter of the new organisation, said: "Poor numeracy is the hidden problem that blights the UK economy and ruins individuals' chances in life."

Last year's Skills for Life survey suggested that the National Literacy Trust's drive to improve literacy was working, with almost six out of 10 people in England having strong reading and writing skills.

But the same figures also suggested that high-level maths skills in England were declining.

Only 22% of people have strong enough maths skills to get a good GCSE in the subject - down from 26% when the survey was last carried out in 2003.

Attracting graduates

TV presenter Carol Vorderman, head of the Conservative Party's "maths task force", told BBC News she was "horrified" by more evidence of Britain's poor maths skills.

Carol Vorderman: "I think it is shameful that the system has allowed this to happen... The curriculum needs looking at. GCSEs need looking at."

"I think it is shameful that the system has allowed this to happen... The curriculum needs looking at. GCSEs need looking at. The whole thing, root and branch, needs changing", she said.

Ms Vorderman added that the media bore some responsibility for Britain's negative attitude to maths.

"Obviously with doing Countdown for all those years, people would talk to me about maths. I can't remember a single television programme which I appeared on as a guest where the host has said: 'Oh yes I am really good at maths'... everybody always says they are rubbish at maths."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We want the vast majority of young people to study maths up to 18 within a decade to meet the growing demand for employees with high-level and intermediate maths skills.

"We are undertaking a root-and-branch review of how maths is taught in schools, attracting the best maths graduates into the profession."

 

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 18.

    13. breuddwyd
    "Let them practice maths questions rather than computer games. I remember doing children's activity books, puzzles... because the reward of parental congratulation"

    I don't understand your snub of computer gaming.

    As a young child, I played through Maths computer games, because of reward of the enjoyment that games give. Educational quality of the past-time is the relevant point.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 17.

    @ breuddwyd: You'd be surprised just how much computer games can actually help literacy and numeracy. I know it's easy to think book = good, games = evil, the major problem with computer games is that it's not physically demanding. Often it is in fact mentally demanding, many games (especially role playing games using engines loosely based on D&D) have huge amounts of reading and maths during play

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 16.

    We need to tackle behaviour in schools and give teachers control over the classroom. Teachers can try to enthuse children and explain the practical benefits of understanding percentages, compound interest, returns on investment, cost of credit, balancing income/expenditure, profit margins, probabilities etc, but if misbehaving children are disrupting the class then no progress will be made.

  • rate this
    +14

    Comment number 15.

    The generation in power and position hasn't done the maths on so many issues. How can house prices be high when wages are low; and kept so by mass unemployment, workfare and a minimum wage one can't live on? Why don't savings rates exceed inflation? Why do politicians talk about low interest rates when most people borrow at 10-29% APR? Why is so fuel so expensive businesses can barely function?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    Problem is the basics in primary school. Money has to be thrown at primary schools double the spending at that point in a child's life when they are the most receptive. Then encourage more self learning at secondary based on that to recap some costs. Too many kids get get to secondary not knowing the fundamentals so they cannot progress. That is your problem there.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 13.

    Enthusing children in maths, giving encouragement at a very young age and let them practice maths questions rather than computer games. I remember doing children's activity books, puzzles, long division for fun as a child, mainly because the reward of parental congratulation and nothing more substantial.

  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 12.

    The same can also be said for the two other basic skills of reading and writing which form, or did form, the basis of all education. These fundamentals are sadly lacking today as can be seen in many of the posts in HYS.

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 11.

    I have quite a few friends (very well educated ones) who are very blase about not being able to do simple sums. Since no one is born stupid, I suspect there is indeed a culture of wearing ones weak math skills almost as a badge of honour. Then again, it is ofcourse more complicated than that, and it may just be a symptom rather than being the problem itself..

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 10.

    Poor numeracy skills exist in other countries. I know several adults here in Los Angeles who never finished their schooling and missed out on higher math studies as a result. I avoided trigonometry because I didn't know what it was: study of triangles. The word "trigonometry" intimidated me. I also skipped calculus because everyone said how hard it was. Yet I loved algebra...and failed geometry.

  • rate this
    +29

    Comment number 9.

    Some of the worst offenders are the media...stating percentages and fractions without regard for accuracy and their relationship to each other. No-one can manipulate a series of numbers using pen and paper and need to resort to a calculator. I had great teachers who made "sums" interesting and maths even more fun later in my education...do we still have these?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 8.

    Yes it is apalling that many cannot calculate a 10% discount but the education is there for the taking. I do though feel this "story" is a makeweight and not worthy of the National news site. That is the real story here.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 7.

    I don't believe the figures here...50% of the working population have only primary school maths skills...this may perhaps be the older generation as children have to go to school until the age of 16, soon to be 18, and have done for a long time so to go through five years of secodary school without learning more maths is ridiculous

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 6.

    "Weak maths skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness."

    There could be a confounding variable at work. E.g. Those who skip school altogether might have all those effects, as well as poor maths. Therefore, mathematics may not be a factor above other subjects.

    Maths is important, but so is scepticism.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 5.

    This just doesn't add up.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 4.

    "It also wants to challenge a mindset which views poor numeracy as a badge of honour, promising to name and shame public figures who boast of being bad at maths." just what our shame society needs, more judgemental blamers trying to make others feel bad. why not show them the benefits instead or is that not nasty enough for this "charity"?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 3.

    A charity set up to "champion maths skills" claims that maths skills are poor and costing the economy money. Shocker. How is this even news? A charity set up for a purpose is obviously going to champion that cause.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 2.

    "The group, National Numeracy, says millions of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable, or pay a household bill." if they can't use a calculator then we really are in trouble.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1.

    I was speaking with a maths teacher friend of mine who is nearing retirement.

    She told me a story of one of her 11 year old pupils in a state comprehensive, who, although otherwise "normal", was incapable of dividing 6 by 3.

    It's about time we stopped fawning over rubbish like "critical thinking" and "general studies". Maths seems pretty much like critical thinking and generally useful to me

 

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