Maths: the missing link

14th May 2004 at 01:00
We neglect numeracy at our peril, argues Alan Tuckett (left). Research now shows that people lacking number skills suffer deprivation. The consequences are financial , social - and sometimes fatal

Report after report highlights the link between poor numeracy and poverty.

The time has come to do more about it. The weaker you are at numbers, the more likely you are to get into debt. More than seven in ten prisoners have the lowest levels of numeracy. If you can't cost a round of drinks in the pub, you either lose face when it's your turn to pay or leave yourself short of cash for more pressing demands on your budget. If you can't estimate the cost of the weekly shop, you face the humiliation of putting things back if you spend too much. Compounded week after week, the lack of such skills will leave you in a mess.

At work, numbers are critical - patients suffer severely, even fatally, if measurements in their medicines are inaccurate. Think, too, of all the time wasted waiting in for people to deliver goods - in part because they can't forecast how long it takes to get from A to B. Then there is the snowstorm of financial choice and a blizzard of invitations to save, or spend - all calculated differently.

To make sense of political choices - on inflation, national debt, the ubiquitous national targets, global warming and so much else - it is necessary to have number skills. Understanding probability is essential when assessing the risk to a child of having a rubella vaccination.

You would think we would all be motivated to strengthen our skills with number. But the National Research and Development Centre (NRDC) for adult literacy and numeracy reports that many learners who don't study numeracy urgently need to because they use it in their everyday lives. The Department for Education and Skills' Survey of Need last October showed that two-thirds of adults with the poorest grasp of numbers mistakenly believed they were "very" or "fairly" good at numeracy. Only 2 per cent thought their skills inhibited them at work. It is common, too, for people to boast, as someone did to me at a recent CBI dinner, that they are hopeless at maths. No one talks about poor literacy in the same vein.

The same DfES survey painted a devastating picture after measuring how poorly prepared adults are to undertake a range of tasks. It revealed that 15 million 16 to 65-year-olds have number skills equal to or lower than 11-year-olds. Fewer than one in five (18 per cent) achieved the equivalent of a good GCSE grade in both literacy and numeracy. One of the starkest revelations was that while only one in three men achieved GCSE level in numeracy, women did even worse, with just one in five making the grade.

Women performed worse than men with maths at every stage of their lives (see chart, below right).

Parents are a child's first and most important educators. Lack of confidence and skill with numbers is learned early - and building parents'

skills can have a positive effect on their children's school performance.

This has a real impact on a person's earnings for life. Just improving a person's skills from those of an 11-year-old to the equivalent of a low grade GCSE (D-G) produces a 9 per cent productivity gain - higher wages and more in the national purse. No wonder the Treasury backs the Skills for Life Strategy.

There is much to celebrate in that strategy. There are now national standards for work in literacy, language and numeracy; tutors are better trained; there are better teaching and learning materials and 2.3 million people have improved skills in these areas. However, numeracy is the poor cousin within the strategy.

Three years in, literacy has been the focus of the strategy and public debate. Last October, a survey by Ofsted, the schools inspection watchdog, and the Adult Learning Inspectorate noted that "numeracy is taught less frequently than literacy although there are as many adults with poor numeracy skills as there are with poor literacy skills". The Smith report, Making Mathematics Count, published in February, showed a shortage of maths tutors and a failure of curriculum, assessment and qualifications in schools to meet the needs of learners, employers and higher education.

There was a lack of resources, infrastructure and continuing professional development to support teachers in schools, colleges and in the workplace.

The NRDC concurs, arguing that numeracy isn't "embedded" or practical enough. There are, too, inadequate numbers of people available to develop a full range of programmes as the TESNiace survey shows (see page 10).

The case for a focus on numeracy is clear. We are pleased to support this special TES supplement which aims to promote a bigger debate. It launches Adult Learners' Week, our annual festival to celebrate adult learners'

achievements and encourage others to join in. This week is important because motivation - a sense that this is for the likes of me - is a vital element of the adult curriculum. This supplement - supported by Niace, the DfES and the European Social Fund - appears as several big issues come to fruition.

First, the debate on how much new money education will get from the Government's comprehensive spending review is intensifying. Second, the Financial Services Agency is gearing up for a big policy paper on the importance of financial education. Third, the key elements of the Government's wider skills strategy - but not the money - are falling into place. Fourth, strategic area reviews by the Learning and Skills Council will establish local learning and skills priorities.

The following pages capture some of the really creative work being done to improve things - from numeracy energiser weekends to financial education websites - such as which Niace launched with sponsorship from Prudential, or the Basic Skills Agency's ground-breaking work in family numeracy. Overall, we hope it makes a powerful case that number matters, and we ignore it at our peril.

Real gains in numeracy will not come on the cheap. That is why Niace submitted a pound;50 million bid to the spending review for new initiatives in basic skills, which aim to strengthen adult participation in learning. Niace supports the Government's policy goals in the Skills Strategy and in Skills for Life, but is concerned that there is insufficient policy money to achieve them.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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