Young adults' poor numeracy at odds with rising GCSE grades

21st December 2012 at 00:00
Survey's findings prompt calls for a more practical qualification

Young adults have lower levels of numeracy than any other section of the population, despite rising grades in GCSE maths, the government- commissioned Skills for Life survey has revealed.

While the proportion of 16-year-olds achieving a good GCSE grade has reached 58 per cent, just 18 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds were assessed at level 2, equivalent to a C or above at GCSE, during the national survey, the first to be carried out for more than eight years.

Among 20- to 24-year-olds, only 16 per cent were assessed at level 2. By contrast, a quarter of 35- to 44-year-olds were assessed at this level, as were a fifth of over-55s, according to the report, which was published in full last week.

The results suggest that even good GCSE results are not properly preparing students to use maths skills in adult life. Carol Taylor, director of development and research at adult education body Niace, said that the experience of the army supports that theory: it found that many recruits had GCSEs but could not pass their numeracy tests.

"What the army would say and some other employers would say is that GCSEs aren't a good proxy for good numeracy skills," she said. "When we try to say that to government, (education secretary) Michael Gove isn't very happy." Numeracy teaching needs to be tied to relevant real-life contexts, she added.

Mr Gove this week said the government is taking action to improve maths teaching in schools. "When it comes to attracting new teachers, we are spending more on mathematics than anything else," he said. "We have recruited more than 300 graduates on pound;11,000 bursaries to be maths specialists in primary schools or maths teachers in secondary schools. And we are also raising the bar on the level of numeracy that all new recruits to teaching must have.

"They must now be able to pass a test that is the equivalent of B grade at GCSE maths."

The Department for Education has shown a willingness to support a more practical maths curriculum, funding the charity Mathematics in Education and Industry to develop a post-16 qualification based on the ideas of Sir Timothy Gowers, professor of mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education has also published a strategy to increase the post-16 study of maths, and is encouraging awarding bodies to develop realistic, problem-solving maths courses.

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of new maths charity National Numeracy, questioned whether the government needs to go further, perhaps by offering two GCSEs in maths, as is the case with English language and literature: one based on real-life contexts and another on "pure maths".

Maths teaching is overly focused on simply calculating, Mr Ellicock said, estimating that this takes up 80 per cent of work in schools. Instead, students need to comprehend a four-part process: understanding a problem, rendering it in mathematical terms, calculating and then testing that the result makes sense.

Asian countries that are celebrated for their maths performance, such as Singapore, do not rely on rote learning as many assume, but focus on things such as students' attitude to maths and meta-cognitive skills, Mr Ellicock added. Specialist maths teachers in Singapore have four years of training.

Addressing problems with maths in schools and colleges is only part of the picture, however. Mr Ellicock said it will take decades to improve the numeracy of the working population by relying only on school- and college- leavers entering the workforce.

"We've got 17 million adults of working age who have got the level of numeracy of a primary school child. One of the big issues is the extent to which numeracy has been hidden behind literacy," he said. "When you look at the figures there have been increases in literacy at level 2, from 44 to 57 per cent, but numeracy has fallen from 25 per cent to 22 per cent. If you looked at these like they were businesses, you'd have completely different strategies.

"There's a trickle-down effect where employers blame schools, secondary schools blame primary schools, primary schools blame parents and parents blame teachers. But we need to do something about the state of the working-age population."

The charity is launching the National Numeracy Challenge in the spring to try to address the shortfall. It will encourage employers to sign up, assess their staff and offer support - from online assistance to a GCSE or functional skills course in college - for employees to improve their skills.

Key findings

- In the Skills for Life survey, the proportion of people found to have level 2 literacy rose from 44 per cent in 2003 to 57 per cent in 2011.

- But the proportion with poor literacy - at the level of a seven-year-old - also rose from 3.4 per cent to 5 per cent.

- Maths skills declined, with the proportion of people at or below the level of a nine-year-old rising from 21 per cent in 2003 to 24 per cent in 2011.

- Among native English speakers, the North East and London had the poorest English skills, with 17 per cent at the level expected of an 11-year-old. Literacy skills improved in Yorkshire and the Humber, the West Midlands and the South East.

- Among native English speakers, the North East had the worst maths skills, with 31 per cent at the level expected of a nine-year-old, while the South East and South West had the best skills. The only "sizeable" decline in maths skills was in London.

Photo credit: Corbis

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