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Literacy counts, but not as much as numeracy

Skills for Life, the national strategy for improving adult literacy and numeracy, has had more than pound;3 billion of investment over the past five years. As a matter of public accountability we therefore need to know exactly what the benefits of this type of learning are.

The National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy has drawn on its own research - and on reviews of evidence from other organisations - to gauge the returns. Our analysis confirms that they are substantial.

The evidence is particularly strong in relation to earnings. It is also clear that the returns to numeracy learning are especially significant.

However, economic gains from Skills for Life, such as social and educational benefits, often take years to become fully apparent. A study by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research found adults who attended a basic maths course more than three years earlier were earning 13 per cent more than matched individuals who had not attended a course.

By the third year of the study the former learners had an average annual take-home pay of pound;558 more than in the first year, while non-learners earned pound;713 less than in year 1.

Higher levels of literacy and numeracy also bring better job prospects. The British Cohort Study (of people born in the same week in 1970) showed that 30-year-old women at level 1 literacy (equivalent to GCSE grades D to G) are up to 7 per cent more likely to be in the workforce than women at entry level 3, the level down.

Furthermore, Skills for Life learners appear to benefit from greater self-esteem, reduced likelihood of long-term illness and commitment to their job. These are significant benefits, not least for employers who emphasise the importance of people's attitudes to their enterprise.

Intriguingly, numeracy is having a particularly important effect on socio-economic outcomes. Some researchers have suggested this is because offices require more numeracy skills than in the past, especially from women.

Whatever the reason, poor numeracy rather than poor literacy was associated with low economic well-being for adults in the British Cohort Study.

Furthermore, numeracy skills decline if not practised. This can create a vicious circle: poor numeracy leads to limited employment, which causes numeracy to deteriorate, which makes it harder to obtain and stay in employment.

At the age of 30, men and women in the British Cohort Study with poor numeracy were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy. And men with poor numeracy had the lowest hourly rates of pay.

The message could therefore hardly be clearer. Literacy counts but numeracy appears to count even more.

John Vorhaus is an associate director of the NRDCFor more about his analysis see

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