Twenty per cent of the British population has severe difficulties in numeracy, an alarmingly high figure. In an international survey of adults with numeracy skills at the lowest level, carried out in 1997 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain came third from bottom, with only Poland and Ireland doing worse.
There are many elements that contribute to this, including the cultural - people feel that literacy is approachable but are anxious about mathematics. The situation is compounded by our schools, as there is a tremendous shortage of teachers with a specialism in maths - something that will have an impact on the outcome of the Government's determination to raise standards in maths through the national numeracy strategy.
At Esso, we welcome a strategy that will tackle poor numeracy in schools because it will translate into potentially grave consequences for the labour market. Some of the world's leading companies in science and technology are British, but to hold our pre-eminence Esso believes that we must be able to recruit a world-class workforce. Competency in maths is required not just at the top end of the labour market, it is also essential further down the organisational ladder.
Jobs are continually changing and the introduction of new technology and quality control systems means that adults without good basic skills will not easily be able to cope. It will be difficult for both individuals and companies to prosper in such circumstances.
The call has gone out from Government for business to make stronger links with schools and join in partnerships to help raise standards in all basic skills. This challenge is one that business can and should take on as it can show why and how maths is relevant to everyday life. The introduction of the national numeracy strategy in September should be the spur to action for schools and companies.
Esso is commissioning Business in the Community to map all businessschool involvement and partnerships up and down the country. From that, Esso will compile and make available a directory of the kind of information schools and companies need to help them become involved in partnerships in numeracy, including schemes, materials, contexts, mentoring and so on. The aim is to give companies encouragement and a sense of purpose. There is valuable work to be done to help children develop numeracy skills.
Numeracy matters. It matters to everyone in a rapidly changing world where the possession of good basic skills is the key to employment, as well as to companies whose ability to prosper will be defined by the skills their employees bring to work. The two are inextricably linked, which is why the directory will be called Mathematics: It's Your Business.
Martin Tims Manager of education and environment programmes for Esso UK