Bad numeracy is a black mark for British prospects

LAST month saw the launch of a small charity with a big ambition – to improve the state of numeracy in the UK. National Numeracy aims to draw attention to a problem known about for decades but which, despite periodic hand-wringing, we’ve not yet fixed.

Nearly 17m people in England – almost half the working-age population – have a numeracy level roughly that expected of children at primary school. Half of those have the skills of a nine-year-old or younger. That means they may not be able to check deductions on a wages slip, understand bus timetables or pay household bills.

These figures were released by the government at the end of 2011. What they showed was not only that numeracy was bad, but that it had got worse in the eight years since the last similar survey – and that the gap between numeracy and literacy was growing.

The impact of all this is obvious, both on the UK economy (KPMG put the annual cost at £2.4bn) and on the individual. If you’ve got low numeracy, you’re twice as likely to be excluded from school, twice as likely to be unemployed, twice as likely to suffer from depression, and some of the differences remain after adjusting for other factors, like poor literacy.

Having poor maths makes you a poor consumer. You’ll struggle with personal finance; energy tariffs and APR will remain a mystery; instant credit offers will lie in wait to trap you; you’ll be a target for mis-selling of all sorts. Worse still, you’re likely to pass on your lack of confidence to your children. Poor numeracy can be a vicious intergenerational spiral.

Underpinning all these manifestations of the numeracy problem is a peculiarly British cultural trait: negative attitudes that allow people across the social spectrum to brag that they’re “no good at maths.” Dismissing maths as unimportant allows us to tolerate an unimpressive national record. It is highly damaging.

At National Numeracy, we believe that that no-one – child or adult – should be written off as being no good at maths. Everyone can learn to get better at it. Our task is to change attitudes. We will work with others on practical projects to research and spread the word on what is effective at school and beyond, and identify gaps where new thinking is needed. We are open to collaboration with and support from anyone who shares our concern (our initial backers include Nationwide).

Others have tried some of this before, but never as single-mindedly as National Numeracy aims to. For a long time, numeracy has sat within the shadow of literacy: the debate about basic skills usually centred on reading and writing. Improvements in literacy are to be welcomed. They show what you can do if public attention and effort are thrown at a problem. It’s time for a concerted effort to do the same for numeracy.

Wendy Jones is a freelance journalist, a former BBC education correspondent, and trustee for National Numeracy.