Curbing the pride in poor numeracy

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Adult Learners' Week sees the launch of a campaign to improve the nation's maths skills, writes Martin Whittaker

"I'm really bad at reading and writing - completely failed at school. But I manage without it. If there's any letter-writing, form filling or help with the kids' school work, the wife takes care of it."

This hypothetical comment is not one you would hear often at a dinner-party table or at the bar of your local pub. Yet many people are ready to admit to being poor at maths - almost to the point of pride: "Nah! Can't do multiplication to save my life."

So, why are we so ready to own up to being innumerate when we are so ashamed of illiteracy? Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Continuing Adult Education, says this is a cultural issue - and a particularly British one.

"Partly, I think it's because maths hasn't been brilliantly taught," he says. "In our education system, you have an overall lack of respect for number-based activity. Engineers are not respected like doctors are in Britain - but they are in Germany, for example.

"What we have is an education system which at its best prepares people to be Nobel Prize winners or to run the civil service. It's the middle range - that you've got more control over your life if you're better with numbers - that I think is the key thing for us to get on to the public agenda."

A drive to improve people's number skills has come second to the national adult literacy campaign. This is reflected in the first joint TES\Niace annual staffing survey, which shows the challenge in adult basic skills facing all colleges, work training centres and adult education institutions.

A study for the Department for Education and Skills last year by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy stated that adult numeracy is "under-researched, under-theorised and under-developed". It says evidence of the impact of adult numeracy tuition is sparse and unreliable.

Adult numeracy teacher education is undergoing major changes, but some teachers' inadequate knowledge is a continuing concern. Why has numeracy been the poor relation?

"I think the average adult who has difficulties sees numeracy as having less impact on their life," says Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency. "Over the past 30 years, every time there has been a literacy and numeracy drive, the numbers coming forward for numeracy have always been less than the numbers coming forward for literacy."

So why do people need to be concerned about maths skills?

It is all in the Niace figures. The decision to make numeracy the focus of a major campaign, Numbers in Everything - launched in the run-up to Adult Learners' Week - is centred on some stark statistics in the Government's Skills for Life survey, in which more than 8,000 adults across England had their maths skills tested.

The survey suggests that 15 million adults have numeracy skills at or below entry level 3 - equivalent to the skills expected of an 11-year-old. Of these, 6.8 million have skills at or below entry level 2, the standard expected for a nine-year-old.

Lower levels of numeracy are strongly associated with socio-economic deprivation. And there are strong connections between earning and numeracy levels. Almost seven out of 10 full-time workers with level 2 or above in numeracy earned more than pound;20,000 a year. Those with skills at entry level 3 or below earn on average pound;8,000-a year less.

Yet very few people who took part in the survey - even those of the lowest ability - regarded their skills as below average. The survey found that only a tiny proportion of those whose skills were very weak felt it had hindered their job prospects or led to mistakes at work.

This suggests that many do not realise the negative impact weak skills can have on their lives and that many people have found jobs approp;riate to their level of skill or have developed strategies to hide their limitations.

"My experience over the years is that a lot of people who want help with numeracy want it for a specific purpose," says Alan Wells.

"They've got to do a test to get a job - or something numerical regularly comes up in their job and it didn't used to. Lots of people taking literacy are people who just want to feel better about themselves. A lot just want to feel they have good skills because of the stigma attached to them."

Further analysis amp; comment in the 16-page TES special report Adult learning: focus on numeracy

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