Dumb at sums? It's not a laughing matter

14th May 2004 at 01:00
We should take numeracy as seriously as literacy, argues Phil Revell

The award for the most embarrassing wrong answer to a maths question is, without a doubt, still held by Stephen Byers. Interviewed on BBC's Radio Five about government plans to improve numeracy in schools, he was asked to multiply eight by seven.

"Fifty-four," replied the then schools minister.

Ouch. But most of us have been there. My personal low point came on a school trip to Norway. In charge of pupils' spending money, I was happily handing out Krona using a faulty understanding of exchange rates. The kids were delighted: I was giving them much more than the banks. This experience cost me pound;50, but it was sums and, like a lot of people, I don't do sums.

Quite why we should be brazenly indifferent to our incompetence at maths is an interesting question. We are ashamed if we can't read, but the ability to make a column of figures add up is a mystical skill that ordinary mortals are not expected to master.

Will Hutton recently scored just five out of ten on a personal finance quiz. Mr Hutton is the chairman of the Work Foundation and author of the best-seller The State We're In, a cogent analysis of UK plc's position in the world. But he didn't know what APR stood for and felt like a dunce at the end of the quiz.

The problem with sums is that there is one right answer. It's not debatable. You can't say to your bank "Give me about pound;50", or load up your supermarket trolley, breeze up to the checkout and declare: "Well, it's about half-full - what do you say to pound;35?"

Does this matter? Mathematicians think so, but are they the problem? It's arguable that it's the emphasis on maths that turns so many people off the subject in the first place. Simultaneous equations and differential calculus may be sexy for some, but most of us just want to be able to make the money last to the end of the week.

Numeracy, the ability to handle number, is a simple skill, but even that is under threat. In most contexts where people are faced with sums, there is a machine on hand to do the work for them. And we have become reliant on that ready answer.

The result is a dangerous situation when people are unable to make adequate judgments about the figures that confront them. A classic example of this happened after the Hatfield rail crash. A panicky rail management was pressured into declaring a national rail go-slow. Commuters reacted by switching to their cars, where they were much more likely to be accident victims. Britain's roads were the deathplace of more than 3,400 people in 2002, while just 10 were killed in train crashes. Accurate figures still aren't available, but it is likely that the result was a bigger total of deaths and injuries.

It's time we devoted the same attention to numeracy that we give to literacy. In schools, this is already the case with the successful numeracy initiative. That way we might see fewer families faced by what is an all too familiar problem. Too much month at the end of the money.

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