Britain doesn’t count

By Belinda Vernon 2 March 2012

With so many charities struggling to make ends meet, it is fantastic to see a new charity launching today. National Numeracy will champion the importance of numeracy for all ages, transforming negative attitudes and boosting numeracy standards across the UK. The idea for National Numeracy was born out of research that NPC published in 2010’s report Count me in, but it is only through a great deal of effort by many others that the idea has become a reality.

But why do we need another charity when there are so many already struggling to find the money to survive? In the field of numeracy, the reason is unfortunately all too clear—numeracy skills in the UK are shockingly poor and getting worse. The latest government Skills for Life survey (2011) found that 17 million adults in England (nearly half the working-age population) have numeracy levels at or below the level expected of a child leaving primary school. This has increased by 2 million since 2003. 30,000 children leave primary school at 11 with the mathematical skills of a seven year old, and almost half the pupils in England fail to achieve A*-C grade at GCSE. It is not surprising then that England came 27th out of 65 countries in mathematics according to a 2009 survey of 15 year olds. Something needs to change.

Unless this downward trend is reversed the implications for the UK economy are bleak—not to mention the negative impact poor numeracy skills has on the life chances of individuals and their ability to make a positive contribution to society. People with poor numeracy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those who are competent at numeracy. A quarter of young people in custody have a numeracy age below that expected of a seven year old. There are plenty more depressing statistics to support the case for better numeracy in Count me in.

The good news is that this situation can be reversed. Huge progress has been made with improving literacy in the UK, and with the right attention (and funding) there is no reason why the same cannot be achieved for numeracy. But there is one important caveat: the widely held negative attitudes towards maths must end. Although 85% of adults think literacy and numeracy are equally important, it seems that it’s OK to say ‘I can’t do maths’, whereas to say ‘I can’t read’ is almost unthinkable.

This attitude must change if we are to stop the rot—it is not an easy task, but vitally important for our economy and for individuals. The determination of National Numeracy, and its supporters, to take up the challenge should be applauded.

Read coverage of the launch of National Numeracy on BBC news and in today’s Telegraph, Mirror, Daily Mail and Sky news. You can also listen to coverage of the launch on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.