Numeracy: The Key Basic Skill?

The responses to the Ofsted and the Adult Learners Inspectorate (ALI) report on basic skills (see issue 18 of Basic Skills Bulletin) reveal a very mixed reception for the progress of the ‘Skills for Life’ (SfL) programme. Many comments in the national press have pointed out that overall progress was limited considering the level of investment since the publication of the Moser report and the implementation of the national strategy. Reading the official Ofsted/ALI report and the comments in the press, it is often difficult to assess the true picture. The government and its various agencies congratulate themselves on the strategies and resources focused on basic skills , while all too often criticising providers. Little wonder there is growing resentment amongst the providers when they receiving negative and often mixed messages.

Numeracy in particular must continue to give concern. The Moser working group reported that seven million men and women were unable to perform very basic calculations such as working out totals on a supermarket receipt. This key skill is the one that presents the greatest challenges in the basic skills landscape – it could be quite rightly called the ‘Cinderella subject’. The issues associated with numeracy reflect much wider problems, most of which have been identified frequently over many decades. The underlying causes are multidimensional and continue to precipitate a whole series of difficulties associated with mathematics and numerical related topics including application of number and basic numeracy.


The stark fact that the majority of mathematics teachers are under-qualified to teach the subject in primary and secondary schools is testimony to a fundamental weakness in the education system. It is not a new problem – innumerable reports have signalled the growing crisis in mathematics teaching. Indeed problems exist at all levels across the spectrum where numerical skills are required. At both ends of this spectrum real problems exist, e.g. students entering higher education do not possess sufficient mathematical knowledge, skill and competence to deal with the requirements of degree programmes. Universities have to carry out diagnostic tests and provide bridging courses for undergraduates. Engineering and science programmes have been particularly affected and the mathematical demands deter students from enrolling on these strategically important disciplines. Because of low recruitment levels, 79 departments of engineering and science have closed over the past six years and 6 university departments of mathematics are closing this year. Very few young mathematics graduates are entering the teaching profession and most of the existing workforce are retiring or are close to retirement age. The problem with recruiting and retaining teachers is very serious and it mirrors the situation with teachers and tutors for the other equally important numerical subjects. As a result there are real problems with the flow of teachers into to profession as well as maintaining the stock of existing teachers.

Cultural problems.

The problems are historical and have a cultural cause. The hostility to things that are numerical is embedded in this country’s psyche. People often boast that they are not good at maths and seem to accept it more readily than admitting difficulties with literacy. It is as if people can more easily cope with being innumerate. One of the possible consequences of this problem is the level of personal debt and the fact that people do not understand simple or compound interest, as well as more general aspects of financial management. These problems have at least been recognised recently by the financial literacy initiative. The reason students avoid disciplines that require ability/competence in mathematics seems to reflect a fear of things numerical. This long-standing problem now means that 15 million adults lack the numeracy skills expected at the lower grade of GCSE. This worrying figure comes from a recent survey of 8,700 adults between the ages of 16- 65 who were required to perform relatively simple tests such as calculating simple percentages from everyday experience, e.g. price reductions, interpreting a bar chart and identifying a phone number from a given list of numbers. The survey (see page 2) concluded that:

  • 6.8 million of adults have numeracy skills below Entry Level 3 (21% of sample).
  • 15 million below Level 1 (47% of sample).

The literacy figures were slightly better but show a significant percentage of the population possesses continuing problems with basic literacy.

The National Research and Development Centre (NRDC) director, Ursula Howard, at a recent RaPAL conference, identified that numeracy presented real challenges and called for a fundamental debate on the problem. The current problems with numeracy are multifarious and will take time to resolve. In spite of government trumpeting their successes, the situation shows little sign of being rectified. The following need to be addressed:

  • Address the numeracy teacher/tutor shortages at all levels of education and training (e.g. recruitment, retention and training/retraining).
  • Tackle the neglected elements of work-based learning across all sectors of employment and for all ages of potential learner.
  • Government should accept it will take time to train/retrain teachers/tutors and to bring about lasting improvement, and avoid short term headline grabbing solutions.
  • Review the funding issues for delivering learning particularly in workplace environments and outreach community provision, to ensure a fair and equitable funding methodology for all providers.
  • Make numerical and mathematical concepts more relevant and real to the learners especially in work and life in general, using practical and real life contexts and approaches with less emphasis on theoretical concepts.
  • Review how best to support tutors.
  • Review how learners and potential learners can best be supported to overcome their concerns and fears of the subject.
  • The government should develop a long term strategy, with increased funding and without constant intervention.
  • The government stop criticising providers, which demotivates people who are having to deal with complex and difficult learning matters.
  • Review the current obsession with targets, bench marks and base line figures and adopt more realistic and less mechanistic measuring regimes.

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