03/09/2013 10:43 BST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Why Is There no Shame in Being Poor at Maths?

On the school run earlier this week I listened to a discussion on FiveLive Breakfast about the poor levels of numeracy among British school-leavers.

It was as illuminating as any discussion led by Nicky 'Think Out Loud' Campbell can be (which is to say it wasn't really).

Campbell rarely disappoints in the sense that he is almost always disappointing, but for once he was completely outdone by his co-presenter, Rachel Burden. Throughout the item Burden proclaimed unashamedly, repeatedly and often that she was "absolutely useless at maths".

You could hear the self-satisfaction: proudly wearing her ignorance like a badge of honour. So much so that I began to wonder whether being a self-confessed thicko is what gets you a job presenting FiveLive Breakfast.

I've no idea whether it has, but unlike most items on FiveLive Breakfast, this one diid make me think. Why is it considered socially acceptable to say, 'I'm no good at maths'?

It's a curious admission - for example you definitely wouldn't hear anyone proudly extol the fact that they were unable to read - yet Burden's not alone. Many people seem happy to announce that they are no good at maths, often doing so in a manner which suggests they are actually delighted to admit it.

So why is this and is there anything wrong with it?

There is certainly an argument that numeracy is less important in everyday life than literacy. As long as we can count, we can get by. We can tell the time, see how fast we're driving and work out how much to pay, whether or not we have enough money, and how much change to expect. For many people only these basic numeracy skills are necessary to get through the day to day and they are easier to pick up than basic literacy skills.

Indeed the penalties for the illiterate seem to far outweigh those for the innumerate. If you're illiterate you can't read a newspaper, fill out a form, order from a menu, follow road signs or written instructions. You wouldn't be able to operate your phone or send a text either. Most occupations, aside from basic manual work, would be closed off to you.

By now you might be thinking like Rachel and Nicky, that being bad at Maths doesn't really matter at all. So it might surprise you that being numerate actually makes a profound difference to how successful people are in life; and far, far greater, on the whole, than being literate.

According to the University of Life Long Learning both literacy and numeracy levels have a big impact on earnings. However, numeracy has a much more powerful effect than literacy. Low earnings are much more likely if one has poor basic skills than if one has good basic skills, but the difference in earnings is much greater for levels of numeracy than for literacy.

At a national level, numeracy has a bigger effect on the average productivity of the workforce and explains a significant proportion of the difference in economic performance between nations.

People use being bad at maths to excuse all kinds of incompetence. Foreshadowing the downfall of many a would-be entrepreneur in the Dragons' Den, Matt and Luke Goss wasted an entire fortune accrued from their time in proto-boyband Bros, because they didn't understand the difference between gross profit - the amount of money you receive in a single year - and net profit - the amount of money you have left once you have deducted all your costs.

And how we laughed - well it's not really a difficult concept to grasp is it? Yet perfectly good businesses go bust because the directors couldn't get their head around these two figures. The bosses at Marconi, the defence-turned-telecoms business, managed to turn a £2.5 billion cash pile into £4.3 billion of debt in just five years. They did this by selling a lot of really good British businesses- like Hotpoint - that made things and net profit and using the money to pay massively over the odds for rubbish, US companies that did neither.

Even something as simple as a percentage - the process of dividing a thing into hundred parts - causes problems.

Footballers perennially struggle with the concept. Giving 100 percent (i.e. everything) just isn't enough. When Sven Goran Eriksson made him England captain David Beckham guaranteed that the team would be giving 110% under his leadership. This might have been enough for somnambulant Swede but the previous incumbent, Kevin Keegan regularly demanded 1000% effort from his players. Conversely whenever a candidate in The Apprentice inevitably offers to "Give Lord Sugar 150% " he's never impressed, but then again Sir Alan did once run a football club.

The percentage figure most people struggle with is the annual percentage rate or APR. The APR is the cost of credit a consumer pays expressed as a simple percentage. You will see it quoted on credit card and loan applications and it allows borrowers to calculate the amount of money they will have to pay back: the higher the APR, the more expensive the credit.

For example if you borrow £100 over one year at an APR of 20 percent you will have to pay back the lender an additional £20 making you liable for a total of £120 or:

100 + (100/100x20) = 120

Simple, you might agree, but the Institute of Financial Services estimates that eight out of ten people don't even know what APR means let alone how to calculate it. A sizeable minority of think it's short for April.

And this fact becomes even scarier, when you consider the record levels of debt in the UK. Britain's personal debt alone is increasing at a rate of £1 million every four minutes.

Perhaps we all need to work a little bit harder at our sums.

Steve McKevitt is an advisor to the UK Government on Employment and Skills.

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