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

    Comment number 738.

    There has been a culture for decades where well known idiots have boasted of their inability to do math or wire a plug etc. That sort of inverted snobbery has not helped.

    Many kids now feel it is not cool to read let alone do math. More fool them as they will be the cannon fodder for those who can do math, e.g. more than half of all Chinese students do a math related degree.

  • rate this

    Comment number 737.

    1 Minute Ago
    Can't add up? Then don't worry.

    You can always join the Labour party and become their next Shadow Chancellor as getting your sums wrong seems mandatory for a job with them""
    Or a Conservative one Norman Lamont always in dept, Winston Churchill always in dept and Nigel Lawson is unable to master 1-1= Climate Change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 736.

    708.Martin Hollands

    Billing in %'s of pence is hard for a lot of people to decipher/understand and exists nowhere else other than utility bills. If it isn't designed to confuse why not simplify it by breaking it down into understandable chunks. Much like the discussion in here, make Maths enjoyable and understandable by not over complicating it but by giving everyone access to it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 735.

    People wouldn't need to be good at arithmetic if sellers were forced to stop disguising their prices."

    Of course thats not your fault for not being able to work out the price?

  • rate this

    Comment number 734.

    Or by using efficient problem solving skills you could simply multiply 100 by 101 and divide that product by 2.

    i.e., 1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 99 + 100 = (100 x 101) / 2 = 5050

  • rate this

    Comment number 733.

    Unless you go on to use it professionally, a lot of the more advanced maths taught at school is irrelevant in everyday life, as are anachronisms like long division & logs.

    As long as you know how to visualise problems, either do them in your head or use a calculator.

    Mental arithmetic is easier if you need to do it often, mine was great when I worked in a bar, but now it's very rusty indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 732.

    721.Atheissimo: Perhaps we need to shout that MATHS QUALIFIED ALGO TRADERS GET AN AVERAGE OF £250K p.a. basic + HUGE BONUS!!!

    Might grab some interest in Maths

  • rate this

    Comment number 731.

    Why stop at numeracy. I recently tried to explain the Act of Union, it was clear we no longer teach history. I tried to explain how a nuclear power station works and that we no longer teach Physics.
    I gave up on explaining the Higgs boson!

    I blame the tabloid press where ignorance and stupidity are seen as virtues and have led to an anti-academic bias.

  • rate this

    Comment number 730.

    If you really want people to learn Maths start to make it interesting and relate to everyday jobs. I have guided my 2 boys through O, A levels and also with Uni work. They are both very good at the subject now but also find it extremely boring with none related to work they are now doing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    RE #723. Good idea in theory - practical application - but how soon before some of them start throwing darts at each other?

  • rate this

    Comment number 728.

    No child should leave primary education illiterate or inumerate, that should be a given.
    Without those basic educational building blocks, the child is lost.
    Granted children will be identified to have dyslexia, dispraxia etc at primary school, the resources should be there to address these problems.
    No child should be allowed to fail i.e. written off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 727.

    I am teaching my son to use logical thinking when coming to solve a problem. sometimes a different approach is more helpful or giving childeren differnt methods to solve a problem which will help or encourage them tackle these problem in real life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 726.

    Can't add up? Then don't worry.

    You can always join the Labour party and become their next Shadow Chancellor as getting your sums wrong seems mandatory for a job with them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 725.

    What annoys me the most is that for years, east asian kids have been far better at maths whilst they were bullied for being good at something everyone should have. In America moreso than here, there is a racial stereotype of them being maths nerds... when in reality, it is us who are lacking in maths skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 724.

    People wouldn't need to be good at arithmetic if sellers were forced to stop disguising their prices. Petrol isn't sold by the litre for our convenience, it is done to hide the outrageous fact that it is over £6 a gallon.
    The same happens in the supermarket. A pork joint is sold with a label saying £3.99 in letters 10cm high and "per kilo" hidden at the bottom in letters I can't even see!

  • rate this

    Comment number 723.

    Problem generally is pupils are not taught the basics before age of 11. Make it interesting. Teacher takes a dartboard into class. Pupils throw darts & class add up the score, take from say 301, find what is remaining. If a double or treble is made, they learn about multiplying. Then work out a finish. Oh, H&S may stop this. Learn algebra, etc at 12+ (maths). Anything similar to learn the basics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 722.

    Rebecca Riot

    I was in your corner but then........

    You inferred that those boys (why not girls aswell BTW) who became dumper truck drivers are failures in life.

    My ex was a driver.She not only brought up her disabled kid,but managed her mothers diminishing health and supported her father with incredible tolerance and skill whilst doing so.


    Back to your tent and hang your head.

  • rate this

    Comment number 721.

    @ Gusgog:

    Once again, I am not denying this. The point I am making is that kids need to know about these jobs. The idea that you only need Maths if you want to be a Maths professor or a Civil Engineer is part of that barrier. Due to the fact that most graduates will go into the service sector, there is a tendency to drop Maths early on because they don't see how they will use it in later life

  • rate this

    Comment number 720.

    I believe schools are working very hard to teach our children good maths skills and for the majority it works. Maths is a skill that has to be used to keep it sharp. I think the statistics only show that most adults don't need to use most the maths they are taught and in time fall out of practice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 719.

    Like Avendoor, I also struggled with maths at school because I simply didn't understand what I was being asked to do (strangely I found algebra very easy). It was only about 20 years ago when I decided to do the OU Science Foundation course (which now no longer exists, I believe) I had to learn maths and find I can do this quite confidently. We need to change the way maths is taught at school.


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