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Let's turn people on

Margaret Ferguson doesn't believe in starting with theory. She has helped construction industry apprentices gain arithmetic skills by building the subject into their trade. Her approach as a key skills tutor at Carillion Construction Training, a private provider in Birmingham, has won praise from the awarding body City amp; Guilds, which holds her up as a model of good practice.

"We have testimony from apprentice trainees who have written passionate letters about how she has transformed their lives, by helping them to learn stuff in weeks that they've struggled with for years at school," says Chris Humphries, director general of City amp; Guilds.

"I want to bottle it and put it into every classroom dealing with key skills in the country."

Margaret Ferguson didn't have a construction industry background - her own experience was teaching key skills in retail customer service.

"I approached it," she says, "as a learner would at 16, straight out of school, knowing nothing about construction. I had to first learn how the key skills fitted into their sector."

She says she spent time with tutors from different trades to understand the sectors. Then she began to present the work in a way that was relevant to their vocation.

"When we were doing area and perimeters, we talked about skirting and flooring boards and joisting," she says. "I put it in context, in the way that they would need that information to calculate the material they needed for their job."

Ms Ferguson's approach to key skills became the subject of a Learning and Skills Development Agency pilot study which was prompted by concern over low levels of retention and achievement of learners on modern apprenticeships.

Building on her success, Carillion Construction Training is now extending her work to other centres. She has since moved to South Birmingham College where she aims to institute the same methods.

Maths skills are high on the Government's agenda, with questions being asked about the way the subject is taught in schools. An independent inquiry into post-14 mathematics education, chaired by Professor Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary University, has identified the failure of the curriculum, assessment and qualifications framework to meet the needs of many learners, employers and universities.

Chris Humphries of City amp; Guilds says: "The question we have to ask is: 'What is it about the curriculum in school that turns people off?'

"I have no objections to there being an academic maths curriculum. We need mathematicians and we need people with high levels of mathematics to go into areas such as physics and biochemistry and new technologies.

"Fine - but that isn't what the populace needs.

"The populace needs a good, very solid grounding in basic everyday maths, and it is more than numeracy. But it needs to be put in context so that they understand why it's important and they understand the benefits they get from using it."

Mr Humphries believes there is an increasing need for a new level of mathematics, something lying between basic numeracy and academic maths as taught in schools and colleges.

This is an issue facing many industries, he says, including construction, engineering and building services. It applies to any skill, trade or profession that requires more sophisticated calculations than basic arithmetic.

"There is a point where many of the day-to-day skills that are appropriate to help people deal with the mathematics they come across in lifego beyond what has been traditionally in the numeracy curriculum.

"They start to include things like basic statistics. They start to include being able to recognise when technology is giving you the right answer and when it's telling you something that is the wrong . Once you get into adult life, mathematics starts appearing in all sorts of areas."

Maths as taught at secondary school, he says, is too anchored in theory rather than practical applications. Most people need maths that is applied to life skills.

"The work that students are given constantly is theoretical. It's not anchored in concrete experiences, and it becomes quite difficult for many of them to cope with concepts, in part because of the way the curriculum is designed and constructed.

"There are times throughout life when mathematical skills become important.

But it's remarkable how few times in your life you come across differentiation and integral calculus - I say this as a mathematician.

"It's ridiculous the extent to which the practical application of maths has become divorced from the theoretical teaching of the concepts."

According to the Skills for Life survey, people with lower levels of numeracy are less likely to help their children with maths homework and are less confident when they do. And poor arithmetic skills can leave people disadvantaged in many other areas of life. How do you cope if you can't work out a budget? Or if you can't add up the cost of goods in a shop? Or you don't know what APR (annual percentage rate) means?

But it also has an impact on wider issues - such as how a Bank of England decision to raise interest rates affect you, or how you assess health risks based on statistics.

Those most affected by lack of maths are usually those who can least afford it.

"It's a very class-based issue," says Joan O'Hagan, basic skills development officer with Niace. "People who are better off don't actually do any adding up when doing their supermarket shopping, whereas if you haven't got much money, how much you spend does matter. So people on lower budgets probably have to have higher arithmetic skills than other people."

Research by the Basic Skills Agency found that many people with relatively poor literacy and numeracy skills do actually use financial products.

"There's always this idea that they don't, but they do," says Alan Wells, the agency's director. "Their problem is with those slightly higher level skills of comparing interest rates on different credit cards, for instance, rather than the very basic level of dealing with change and simple mathematical calculations."

Various initiatives have been launched to boost financial literacy among adults. Financial Skills for Life is a three-year programme, backed by Prudential plc, aimed at people who come to Citizens Advice Bureaux for help.

Another scheme is Money Matters To Me, an online financial education site developed by Niace, again in partnership with the Pru. This aims to widen access to learning for people with a range of skill levels, and allows them to develop ICT and numeracy skills using interactive learning resources.

The decision to make this an online resource follows a survey by the Basic Skills Agency to find out what would motivate people to improve their numeracy skills. It found that 77 per cent would commit themselves to study if it involved using a computer.

Niace finance programme

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