Can you imagine a future Head of State or a Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister cheerily admitting that they were illiterate? It would be unthinkable wouldn't it? But when it comes to numeracy, it is almost fashionable to admit you are no good at it. Last week Prince William confessed to an audience of Indian students that he was "terrible at Maths". Perhaps more seriously a few years ago, Gordon Brown, when Prime Minister, admitted to school children in Manchester that he wasn't very good at Maths. This was from the man who had been in charge of the nation's finances for a decade previously!
It is little wonder then with this candour from those at the top of British society that a growing culture of 'innumeracy' has been allowed to foster. And its damaging implications were revealed last week, with a survey suggesting the underlying causes of Britain's obesity epidemic could be connected to poor maths skills. Shockingly three quarters of adults admitted they cannot work out how much sugar they should be eating from reading packets because their maths skills are too poor. A report from Unicef last week gave further credence to this, finding Britain 25th out of 37 wealthy nations for its equality levels in children's maths and science skills, as well as reading.
In the Budget Chancellor George Osborne announced a £520 million levy on sugary soft drinks to reduce childhood obesity. However these studies would indicate that a focus on education could ultimately be the solution. In the same budget George Osborne called for more attention to be focused on boosting the Maths skills of under 18s. This is a welcome recognition of the challenge the nation faces, both in terms of life skills but also jobs. The recent Tough Choices report produced by AT Kearney outlined the growing challenge of children having an alarming lack of knowledge about jobs of the future that depend on Maths. In fact only one in ten students interviewed were able to identify any careers involving Maths. There was also a perception that STEM skills are only for to admit to not doing numbers, even though these skills will be the bedrock of jobs in the the 'ultra-bright', with parents also at fault here for perpetuating a culture when it is acceptable industries of the future.
Sadly the problem is particularly acute for girls who lack confidence in their own ability, despite evidence of better performance. Across so many sectors jobs of the future will depend on the ability to do numbers with technology, digital skills and data science being critical to the economy's future health and offering students the pathway to fulfilling, exciting careers.
Asian countries recognise this and they would be horrified at the tacit acceptance of innumeracy. These are countries experiencing more rapid economic growth and interestingly far lower levels of obesity. Clearly a dramatic societal shift will be needed in order to be ready for the rapidly changing technological world. The culture of acceptance of innumeracy must be tackled to improve our children's life chances and who knows, maybe even shrink our waist lines.
Edwina Dunn is Chair of Your Life, the organisation aimed at inspiring and informing young people about the transformative power of studying Maths and Physics.Suggest a correction