Numeracy skills are "blighting" millions of people's lives, as they struggle to understand their payslips or calculate money in shops, education campaigners warned on Friday.
Being bad at maths should no longer be seen as a "badge of honour" or down to genetics, according to National Numeracy. The new organisation, which aims to challenge the nation's entrenched negative view of the subject, has warned the UK's attitude to maths must change.
Chris Humphries, chair of the group, said that poor numeracy skills will leave people at a higher risk of being excluded from school, or out of work as an adult.
Figures from a Government survey, published last year, show that 17 million adults in England have basic maths skills that are, at best, the same as an 11-year-olds, he said.
The Skills for Life survey, which questioned 7,000 16 to 65-year-olds, show that almost half of the working age population has numeracy skills roughly the same as those expected of primary school children, and the proportion has risen (from 47% to 49%) in the last eight years.
Speaking at the launch of National Numeracy, Humphries, former chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, said: "That's a scary figure, because what it means is they often can't understand deductions on their payslip, they often can't calculate or give change.
"They have problems with timetables, they are certainly going to have problems with tax and even with interpreting graphs, charts and metres that are necessary for their jobs."
He added: "It does matter, poor numeracy seriously blights an individual's life chances.
"Young people with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be excluded from school, we know adults with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be unemployed."
Humphries said that poor maths skills are also "highly damaging to the UK economy".
Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said: "We want to challenge this 'I can't do maths' attitude that is prevalent in the UK.
"And it's often a boast, or a badge of honour and that's across the whole of the social spectrum."
He added: "A huge part of the message is breaking down this view that's held in this country that maths is a can do, can't do thing, that 'It's genetic, I can't do it, my mum couldn't do it' and that kind of thing.
"There's absolutely no evidence for that whatsoever."
Ellicock said it was vital that all primary school teachers understand key maths concepts, as young children who fail to learn the basics will suffer later on.
"For my money Key Stage 1 (five to seven-year-olds) is the crucial area, so there has been talk about having specialist maths teachers in Years 5 and 6, but my view is Key Stage 1 is crucial, and if you look at children and young adults that struggle with maths later in their lives you can pretty quickly trace it back to the ideas that they met in Key Stage 1."
A YouGov poll of 2,068 adults, commissioned by National Numeracy, reveals that while four in five (80%) would feel embarrassed to tell someone they were bad at reading and writing, just more than half (56%) would feel embarrassed about saying the same of their maths skills.
Humphries suggested that the relevance of maths has been "downgraded" in the UK, and that since the Second World War, more attention has been paid to the arts and humanities.
He also warned that international studies show that the UK is lagging behind other nations.
In 2006, it was ranked 17th out of 30 developed nations in terms of the proportion of people with low or no qualifications, with 35% at that level, double the number of countries such as the United States, Canada, Germany and Sweden.
Humphries said that National Numeracy was at the start of an "ambitious" journey.
"The history of attitudes and concerns about mathematics in the UK, and particularly in England, date back 40 years, and we're quite realistic, we don't expect to transform this particular issue overnight."
He added that there was no "straight answer" as to why the UK had a poor attitude towards maths.
"I think it's a whole history of struggling with maths in the past, downgrading the relevance of maths, so that there was a much stronger focus that we had in this country since the war on the arts and humanities and social science that maths became slightly less trendy, progressively not as many people did maths," he said.