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'Learners aged 16 are told they can't do maths'

There is a difference between gaining maths qualifications and being numerate, argues National Numeracy’s Mike Ellicock

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There is a difference between gaining maths qualifications and being numerate, argues National Numeracy’s Mike Ellicock

"A GCSE in maths does not necessarily make you numerate." These were the words of Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, earlier this month.

We at the independent charity National Numeracy have a growing body of evidence from a range of settings, including over 20 NHS trusts and 10 universities, proving exactly that – so this recognition is real progress.

We're very good in this country at helping people to get qualifications but, in doing so, are we helping them to become numerate? The latest government data and recent research from the Money Advice Service suggest that around half of the adult population are working at the numeracy levels expected of a primary school child – so clearly something isn’t working.

Take the situation with GCSEs, where grade boundaries are set so that a third of the cohort falls automatically below a grade 4. We are by default telling a third of 16-year-olds that they "can’t do maths". When combined with the astounding statistic that you only needed 18 per cent in the higher paper to get a 4 last year, it is unsurprising that the lasting memory that most adults have of maths, whether they "passed" or not, is that they couldn’t do most of it. This isn’t great preparation for facing big real-life decisions that require analysis and interpretation of numbers and data.

Getting the right 'attitude' towards numeracy

At National Numeracy we are all about enabling people to have the confidence and competence to use numbers and data to make good decisions in everyday life. Understanding your payslip, progressing at work because you can use data, weighing up percentage rates before you borrow or save, spotting a scam when you see one, making sense of stats from the GP. You get the idea. We call this the Essentials of Numeracy, and this "everyday" focus – along with attitude – underpins our whole approach.

We have spent six years relentlessly challenging the social acceptability of saying "I can’t do maths". Our projects start by homing in on how maths makes people feel. We completely labour this – taking people on a journey starting with raw emotion (“it makes me feel queasy” “I’m shaking like a leaf”) before busting maths myths ("Mistakes are bad", "It’s just me who struggles"), and opening them up to a place where confidence emerges.

This idea of putting attitudes at the heart of things is what most people who work within funded adult education system say is necessary to enable students to become numerate, but in practice funded delivery almost inevitably ends up being content, content, content in tailored preparation for the exam.  

This approach is not working well but the bigger issue is for the over 95 per cent of adults who need help yet aren't touched by the system at the moment. Given the scale of the issue, it is impossible to expect education providers alone to reach the "forgotten half" of adults.  National Numeracy is, therefore, working with the NHS and other employers outside the funded system. We are providing support to help individuals realise that there isn't a maths gene, and making the subject directly relevant to their job so that they then more willingly engage with our online resources. We've had whole cohorts of NHS staff improve their numeracy level – using this approach, which starts with attitudes – without us teaching them any numeracy or maths at all.

We're not suggesting that those individuals going through the system for the first time can be supported in this way. But there are millions of adults out there in the workplace, many with a painful experience of mathematics education, who can be supported digitally – and we've got clear evidence to show that this can work.

A cultural change is needed

As we get ready to bring you the first-ever National Numeracy Day on 16 May, we are preparing to encourage everyone across the UK to understand their numeracy levels and, if needed, get help to improve.

We’re doing something that’s accessible to everyone regardless of their educational experiences. Unlike existing maths days (which have tended to focus on high flyers and those already with a love of mathematics), we want to reach people at home, in education, in the workplace, on their phones. It's story-orientated, personal and real, with examples of relatable situations and a positive approach.

Our resources (available all year round) will be used in workplaces, colleges and homes across the country. Please help us to spread the word – together we can start to change the national psyche from “I can’t do maths” to “we’re all numbers people”.

Mike Ellicock is chief executive of National Numeracy. National Numeracy Day takes place today, 16 May, and resources are available at

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