Radio Maths is Fun!

20/03/2014 15:14 GMT | Updated 19/05/2014 10:59 BST

I'm a fan of Radio 4's 'The News Quiz'. I think it's less self-conscious and often funnier that its TV counterpart 'Have I Got News For You' and it's got a quizmistress, the superlative Sandi Toksvig - a real case of one-upwomanship, given all those concerns about female under-representation on panel shows.

Last week the panel chose to have some fun with maths. And there was quite a lot of maths in the news to have fun with - Chinese maths teachers being brought into English schools, poor maths skills costing the UK £20 billion a year, a new campaign to improve the numeracy of a million adults, maths quizzes in the Mail and Telegraph ('Can you pass the National Numeracy Challenge?').

News Quiz panellist Jeremy Hardy had done the Telegraph quiz and got 100 per cent but found it all rather pointless. Listening to the show as I was driving, I laughed, not least at Sandi Toksvig's joke that she had loved maths at school - "that mid-morning power nap set me up for the day". But my heart sank just a little.

A few days earlier, I had chaired a press conference on behalf of the charity National Numeracy. We were launching both a new campaign to improve maths skills in the UK - the National Numeracy Challenge - and a new report from Pro Bono Economics which estimated the cost of poor numeracy to employers, individuals and the public purse. It was, arguably, good to be able to provide rich pickings for radio wits, even if our announcements (the Challenge and the economic report) did get confused with the government's announcement on teachers from Shanghai coming here to show our schools how to do maths lessons (to the National Union of Teachers' dismay).

The Telegraph and the Mail had run their quizzes based on a few sample questions from the Challenge's online self-assessment. Fair enough, that's what newspapers do.

Jeremy Hardy may have found the exercise pointless, but the Challenge itself does have a point, a very serious point. It aims to bring on board private and public sector employers, unions, the education establishment, community and voluntary groups in a concerted attempt to start to crack a long-neglected problem: the low levels of numeracy endemic across the UK.

We already knew that poor numeracy was more widespread than poor literacy and that around half the population of working age had only primary school-level maths skills (too many power naps at secondary school?). We also knew that poor maths was linked to lower earnings (even more so than poor literacy is) and possibly to wider wellbeing. But now the new economic research put a figure to the estimated overall cost. And £20 billion may be on the low side, since some things, like the cost to the justice and health systems, are not so easily measured.

Not exactly side-splitting stuff. Yet maths is quite a rich seam for jokes and jokiness - and self-deprecating quips, like the civil service mandarin who told a colleague of mine: "I'm no good at maths and it hasn't held me back". Ho ho. That was a man speaking, although women are particularly good at rubbishing themselves. In the past I may have told a few myself but have since washed my mouth out with copious amounts of saltwater.

The National Numeracy Challenge doesn't want to ban the jokes entirely, though it would like to get rid of the rather tired rubbishing. At its heart is a carefully crafted online assessment tool - not a linear test like the newspapers published, but an adaptive one. In other words, if you get a question right, it takes you to a harder one, and if you get it wrong, it takes you to an easier level.

This is designed to diagnose not just how good your maths is but exactly where you may have problems - and then recommend relevant online learning or help you find a course to attend. The Challenge is also signing up champions to help people on a one-to-one basis. After the learning, you come back to assess your progress.

It's free, it's easy to use, you may even enjoy it. Try it. Tell others. I can't promise too many laughs. But smiles maybe. And if the penny drops that maths is not impossible, or pointless, or nap-inducing, then all to the good.