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Test 14-year-olds in maths to counter 'national scourge' of poor numeracy, says charity

Poor numeracy skills are still a "national scourge" that risk harming the UK economy, a charity has warned, as it called for a new GCSE in everyday maths.

The importance of maths in everyday life has been overlooked for too long, according to National Numeracy, which has set out a new seven-point plan to tackle the problem.

It calls for teenagers' numeracy skills to be checked at age 14. It also wants a new numeracy, or core maths, GCSE qualification to be introduced alongside the current maths GCSE as part of the reforms currently taking place in England.

Around half the adult population have the everyday maths skills expected of primary school children, the document argues, while three-quarters cannot show the numeracy levels needed to get a decent GCSE grade.

The cost of poor numeracy is considerable, with an earlier study conducted for the charity estimating the bill at around £20 billion a year, with the cost borne by individuals, employers and the public purse.

In a new manifesto, the charity says that poor numeracy – or everyday maths – is a "massive challenge" for the UK. "As a nation we have overlooked the importance of numeracy for too long, often distracted by the understandable demands of literacy," it says.

"In spite of many strides forward - in research and practice - and initiatives by successive governments, there has been no comprehensive and coherent breakthrough. Poor numeracy remains a national scourge."

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said: “We know that virtually everyone can become numerate, but there are massive psychological and structural barriers in the way. In this manifesto, we set out some steps for starting to remove them. There’s no quick fix. It’s going to take hard work and a lot of co-operation.”

The document sets out a series of proposals to boost numeracy skills, including calling for every school teacher to be trained to use numeracy as a key part of every subject, not just maths.

It goes on to say that there should be a new measure of numeracy skills at age 14, which could then be used as a ‘benchmark’ of the level of numeracy they will need for their future studies.

There should also be an "additional and universally respected" qualification in core maths alongside GCSE to ensure that numeracy is seen as a vital skill.

For adults, there should be a core numeracy curriculum that teaches people how to use maths to solve everyday problems, as well as new types of assessment that show how much students have progressed in the subject, it says.

The manifesto says that a new drive is needed to spread positive messages about numeracy and its importance.

"The numeracy challenge is unique in that it requires a fundamental change in attitude," the manifesto says. "Negative 'can't do maths' approaches have beset the UK for too long. We need now to build awareness that being numerate is both important and possible, and we need to increase national and individual determination to stick with it."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said: “The case for numeracy is compelling and we are pleased to support National Numeracy’s manifesto. Struggling with maths is somehow acceptable in a way that problems with reading are not."

Pupils were tested in English, maths and science at the age of 14 until 2008 when they were abolished in favour of teacher assessment, but last year Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector, called for them to be brought back saying that they helped teachers keep track of children’s progress.

Related stories 

Bigger maths GCSE will represent a ‘quantum leap for teachers’ 28 May 2014

GCSE maths reforms will fail weak students, researchers warn 27 Aug 2013

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