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Doing the Sums With Britain and Numeracy

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Last week I spent a lot of time talking about some rather grim statistics. Nearly 17 million people in England - almost half the working-age population - have the numeracy skills expected of children at primary school. What's more, half of those have the skills of a nine-year-old or younger. That means they may not be able to check pay and deductions on a wage slip, understand bus timetables or pay household bills.

This situation was highlighted at the launch of a new charity, National Numeracy, of which I am a trustee, and which aims to improve the state of numeracy in the UK. We're also setting out to challenge what we see as a peculiarly British trait: negative attitudes which allow people across the social spectrum to brag that they're "no good at maths."

The 17 million figure first emerged, rather quietly, in a government report in December, the result of testing thousands of adults across England. Publication of the survey headlines attracted relatively little attention. Most of the media either didn't spot the figures or decided they were uninteresting.

But what the figures showed was not only that the numeracy position was bad, but that it had got worse in the eight years since the last government survey and that the gap between numeracy and markedly improving literacy scores was growing.

So how much does all this matter, or as one radio producer actually asked me this week while deciding whether or not to cover the story, is maths that important? Doubtless, he was thinking back to his own experience of blackboard formulae and querying the relevance of those to real life.

Well, yes, it is important. It matters because - to state the obvious - maths is all around us in the way we interact with the world and with each other. If your maths is poor, you're not going to be on top of your own personal finances - energy tariffs and APR will remain a mystery, 'cheap' credit offers will be lying in wait to trap you. You're going to struggle to help your children with maths schoolwork, and you're not going to get a better - or maybe any - job. And lots of Britons, it would seem, are in this position.

Take the case of Paula, interviewed on national radio. She admits that, when it came to school maths, she "just didn't get it." In adult life, she found herself unsure whether she was being short-changed in shops. But it was when she realised her children thought that they were "rubbish at maths, just like mum" that she decided to do something about it. She went to numeracy classes at college - where she did get it. As National Numeracy stresses, maths is not a 'can' or 'can't do' subject. Everyone can learn to be better at it.

Numeracy matters too to the economy. KPMG estimated the annual cost to the UK economy of poor numeracy at £2.4 billion. Employers frequently bemoan the lack of numerate recruits - at all levels. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have fewer young people continuing maths beyond 16 than almost all other developed countries. (Scotland does a little better, probably because of a different exam system.) This affects the shortfall in the numbers going into science, engineering and technology subjects at university.

It makes you wonder: what is it about the British and maths? There are probably multiple root causes - the way children are taught, the leftovers of a humanities-biased education system, a failure to clock the impact of changes in the education demands of an increasingly technology-based global economy.

All of this is not a new story and perhaps the fact that it is not a new story is the story. We've known for decades that the UK has this problem but, in spite of periodic hand-wringing, things have barely shifted.

That's why National Numeracy is now filling a space that no-one has filled before. The UK has never had an organisation devoted solely to improving numeracy across the age range and, as a prerequisite to that, to changing attitudes. We will talk to anyone and work with anyone who shares our concern and our determination. Watch this space.

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