People aged between 16 and 60 are no better at arithmetic than children. A study carried out on behalf of the Basic Skills Agency shows that Britain came bottom of the league of seven industrialised countries in a maths test.
Around 6,000 adults in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Australia and Denmark were given 12 tasks such as: multiply 6 by 21, work out 15 per cent of 700, and what is 5Z6 of 300?
British respondents achieved an average of 7.9 correct answers compared with other countries' average of nine or more. Japan came top with 43 per cent getting all the answers right, France was second with 40 per cent and the Netherlands was third with 38 per cent. Only a fifth of the UK sample got them right. Australia was second worst with 33 per cent answering correctly.
While 22 per cent in the UK could only answer up to five of the questions, only 4 per cent in the Netherlands were as innumerate. British women did worse than men, 16- to 24-year-olds did worse than other age groups and 45- to 54-year-olds did best. This pattern was similar in other countries except Japan where there was little difference between age groups or sexes.
Sir Peter Davis, chairman of the BSA, said that although the survey was on a small scale, it reinforced the conclusion drawn in the Government's skills audit that people needed to improve their numeracy skills.
"It is important to remember that most people in our survey were at school before the introduction of the national curriculum and regular key stage assessment," he said.
A second survey commissioned by the agency, also published last week, showed that poor numeracy had a serious effect on employment prospects. Researchers asked a 10 per cent sample of adults from the National Child Development Study (NCDS) to carry out tasks with varying levels of difficulty, from working out change in shopping to calculating a percentage service charge.
The NCDS followed a sample of people born in a week in 1958 to adult life. The BSA study showed that just over a quarter of the 37-year-olds had very low numeracy skills which would make it difficult to complete everyday tasks. Men were more frequently unemployed, more likely to be in manual jobs and less likely to have had any work training. Women were not as badly affected, but were more likely to be in part-time work. But only 9 per cent overall recognised they had numeracy problems, compared with 19 per cent who acknowledged they had poor literacy skills.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, said: "Poor standards of literacy and numeracy are unacceptable. If our growing economic success is to be maintained, we must get the basics right for everyone. " She said she would shortly be announcing further initiatives to raise standards in basic skills.
The two reports were launched as part of a joint numeracy campaign with the BBC called "Count me in".
International numeracy survey is available free, from the BSA, Commonwealth House, 1-19 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1NU. Does numeracy matter? costs Pounds 6 from the BSA.