Raise your maths game, raise your income

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Susan Pember (right) has a message for the innumerate: the better qualified you are, the more you'll earn. She explains why to Martin Whittaker

Susan Pember is under no illusions as to the sheer scale of her task - to persuade millions of adults that maths is important. Her secret weapon is a statistic, one that she hopes will make people sit up and take notice.

Official figures link good number skills with good wages. Nearly seven out of 10 full-time workers with numeracy at level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) or above earn more than pound;20,000 a year. Those with entry level 3 or less - lower than the average 11-year-old - are less than half as likely to earn this amount.

"One of our core messages is that we can prove now that if people only improve their maths by one level, their income goes up by about pound;8,000 a year," says Pember, director of the Adult Basic Skills Strategy Unit. "Nor are you likely to get promoted to any supervisory role unless you have better maths skills."

Her unit began its campaign three years ago. Up to last July, 470,000 learners had passed qualifications. By next July, an estimated 2.1 million will have taken 4.3 million courses.

But why is numeracy being targeted now? Pember says that, while there was much research on people's literacy levels, similar information on numeracy was lacking.

Then, last year, the Skills For Life`* survey revealed the scale of the problem: that 15 million adults in England have numeracy skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old.

"We were doing a lot," says Pember, "but we actually needed to do more."

What are the new campaign's aims? "We would like to see as many people doing the numeracy qualification as we have doing literacy. We want to see the participation and take-up being greater. Also, we're very keen to make sure that the stigma attached to maths becomes less, that people see it's relevant."

Pember was appointed in 2000. She arrived with a solid track record in FE and sound experience of basic skills needs. While principal of Canterbury college in the 1990s, student numbers doubled.

"We had 10,000 students, many of whom didn't have five GCSEs. The majority would have needed literacy and numeracy support. It's much better to be able to educate those people when they're in education. So if I was a college principal now I'd want a whole-college mechanism for numeracy, as I would for literacy. I would want all my students assessed, and, if any of them showed they had a gap in their knowledge, I would want to fill that with a personalised learning programme."

This academic year the Learning and Skills Council has spent pound;97 million on basic- skills numeracy and key-skills application of number - a figure on a par with spending on literacy. Pember's unit aims to provide 750,000 adults with basic skills by the end of this year; 1.5 million by 2008. But she says there will be no specific targets for numeracy thanks to feedback from a front line already weary of target-setting.

The government-backed Gremlins TV will begin a new round of advertising next year with more emphasis on maths. Despite criticism that the campaign portrays people with poor basic skills negatively, the ads have so far generated more than a quarter of a million calls to the campaign helpline.

But what of the national shortage of basic skills tutors? "What we need to do with numeracy is not just have specialist numeracy teachers. We also need to train our vocational staff so that they're able to embed this properly in their work. So, if you're doing percentages and you're in catering, you learn that as part of your catering. Or if you're doing measurement, you learn that as part of your carpentry training. So it's not just standing alone. We have to make it more interesting for the learner and more relevant."

She acknowledges that creating increased demand for maths skills is a huge challenge - one that requires changing attitudes to the subject itself.

"We have to find ways of explaining to people the importance of maths.

We'll be building on the Smith review of maths for schools because we need people coming through with better maths skills.

"And for adults, we need to say: 'Look - it's really important to you. And you can go and do something about it'."

*Skills for Life was commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills and carried out by the British Market Research Board between June 2002 and May 2003

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