The Importance of Statistical Literacy

Dick Evans reports on efforts to improve statistical literacy amongst the population.

It is now an unquestioned and accepted fact of life that we live in a world dominated by science and technology and that this inevitably requires a workforce and members of society in general to be more scientifically literate and numerate. Employees are required to possess higher levels of the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and a greater capability in the use of IT. This is coupled with the wider skills for employability namely: team working, problem solving and managing their own learning and development. People leaving education to enter employment require these skills to equip them for the modern work place.

As a result a great deal of emphasis has been focused on these skills where they occur in both the national curriculum and in post-16 education and training.

Accepting the importance of the various programmes for raising the levels of competence and achievement in numeracy, communication and IT skills there is one glaring omission in the acquisition of essential skills namely statistical literacy. The problems associated with this deficiency are manifested at a variety of levels’, for instance, in the difficulties many people experience with understanding simple and compound interest when taking out loans. Sadly this problem can be exploited by loan sharks who according to a recent survey have been known to charge 13 million percent!? These unfortunate incidents have brought about the need for the many programmes on financial literacy. Of course statistical literacy goes beyond these elements of financial management and needs to be addressed more fully and introduced into a range of educational and training programmes. In the employment field most production processes now involve statistical control methods that require some understanding even by factory floor staff. The importance of statistics in such industries as pharmaceuticals is fairly obvious where accurate and valid statistical modelling is absolutely essential. The statistical modelling during the development and the subsequent trials for a new drug are a critical element in moving the drug to the production stage. Many pharmaceutical companies are currently experiencing major problems recruiting home grown highly qualified statisticians and are increasingly appointing overseas professionals.

Current provision of statistics.

At present separate programmes in statistics are offered at GCSE, ‘AS’ and ‘A’ level but take up is very small. Statistical aspects are present under the heading of data handling and constitutes 25% of the current GCSE Mathematics syllabus. Clearly statistical concepts and techniques are required in other subjects but there is no overall strategy to develop a greater level of competence and capability in statistical literacy for all learners irrespective of the courses they undertake.

The case for statistics and statistical literacy.

In today’s world of work there is a requirement to possess problem solving and reasoning capabilities both in numeracy and statistical techniques. Workers increasingly are required to become more computer literate which indirectly requires them to be more aware of mathematics and statistics. The acquisition of greater understanding and skills of statistical methods and techniques allows them to use computers more efficiently and hence improves their productivity and performance and that of the company.

Information in statistical form is presented in all aspects of everyday life and most certainly in the press and media. The ability to understand and record measurements, comprehend and be able to interpret the multitude of league tables and other indicators that abound these days is essential. Quantitative and qualitative data, numerical and statistical information is presented daily via the mass media on such important issues as employment, demography, the economy, crime, nutrition, immigration, global warming.

However, the majority of people have very little understanding of how to validate, let alone interpret, this information. Statistical literacy creates the ability to put statistical knowledge and skills to functional use in a variety of contexts and to appreciate information and data that is expressed statistically. Both statistical literacy and mathematical competence are pivotal for many jobs both in the service and non-service industries. It is clear to me that statistical literacy should be given the same importance as numeracy and the other skills essential for working and coping with every day experiences. Yet little attention, interest or public discussion exists on this critically important topic.

Recent Developments.

Surprisingly, the Smith Inquiry (HMSO 2004) made little reference to statistics even though it identified the ongoing crisis in mathematics and the level of numeracy in this country. The Report was remarkably silent on the importance of statistical education and statistical literacy and their location within the 14-16 curriculum. Statistical education only merited three references out of the Reports’ fifty-four recommendations and these focused on the role and location of statistical education in the curriculum. The report argued that the current GSCE Mathematics syllabus should not have the present level of statistics and data handling but these elements should be integrated across other subjects e.g. geography. In many ways this proposal to integrate makes some sense but there is a danger that many learners because of their subject choices will not gain any direct tuition on statistics. Following the Smith Report the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) established a working party and published a report (RSS 2005) on the teaching of statistics across the 14-19 curriculum. It quite understandably presented a robust and well-argued case for statistics in the curriculum particularly for the 14-19 stage. I hope the recommendations of the RSS are seriously considered in the impending changes to the national curriculum. However I feel that reviews should occur across other stages of education and training.

Initiatives to improve statistical literacy

It might be helpful to detail and compare two initiatives below:

As early as September 2001 a higher education Task Force was established to examine the worrying lack of numerical skills amongst students entering universities. We reprint here the key statistical literacy recommendations of: An enquiry into the use of numeric data in learning & teaching. There is no evidence that the recommendations of this study were implemented.

Recommendations and conclusions.

We hope (these recommendations) will provide the JISC and others with a framework for moving forward. No single organisation can bring these recommendations to fruition; rather, strategic co-operation to achieve objectives is a fundamental message of this report.

1 A broad initiative is recommended to promote subject-based statistical literacy for students, coupled with tangible support for academic teaching staff who wish to incorporate empirical data into substantive courses.

  • Key skills – Responsibility for building students’ ‘transferable skills’ which include statistical literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, data analysis, and computing skills needs to be addressed right across higher education. Such quantitative-based skills should be integrated with, and not overlooked, in the push for information literacy, IT (information technology) skills, and other skills deemed necessary as educational outcomes, along with discipline-based knowledge.
  • Training – Many teachers need to build or rebuild confidence in their own quantitative skills for incorporating students’ use of data into coursework. ‘Refresher’ courses should be made available locally, which are convenient for staff with busy teaching schedules. Bursaries are needed for teachers to attend specialised short courses and summer courses.

  • Student-centred – Both undergraduate and postgraduate students should be given adequate support for the use and analysis of secondary data sources as part of their independent research. It is unrealistic for support for students to fall solely on the tutor or supervisor, because there are usually several learning curves that need to be mastered by the student in order to get the empirical result desired. (A majority of survey respondents desired help at the local level with both data discovery / locating sources and helping students to use data for learning and research.) This would help lead to a more student-centred education as well as reduce the burden of teachers.

It is useful to compare this subject based approach with the recommendations of the 2005 RSS survey:

  • Statistics should be part of the 14-19 core curriculum to which everyone has some exposure.
  • A coherent approach to teaching statistics theory and applications is necessary; in the short to medium term, this can only be assured by maintaining the position of statistics within the mathematics curriculum.
  • Mathematics departments in schools should ensure that suitably broad examples of applications are used in teaching statistics and should take overall responsibility for ensuring the coherence and quality of statistics across the curriculum; there should be a study of how the necessary coordination might best be achieved.
  • Statistics can and should be used to motivate and illuminate core aspects of mathematics at the appropriate levels across the full 14-19 age range; this role for statistics should be more strongly accepted and developed by mathematics educators.
  • Appropriate continuing professional development programmes are required, and there are also important requirements for initial teacher training.

The Way Forward.

I truly believe that statistics should continue to be taught as a separate subject at GCSE, AS and A-level even though the numbers will be small. A number of people will wish to study the subject at HE both at undergraduate and post-graduate level and enter employment areas that demand statistics such as pharmaceuticals, university teaching etc. Statistics should continue to form part of the GCSE Mathematics papers and statistical concepts and techniques be integrated into other subjects within the national curriculum. However in addition to these aspects serious consideration must be given to developing a statistical literacy strategy to complement the financial literacy initiative and the existing skills for life push on numeracy.

Dick Evans sits on various committees looking at the future of mathematics education.


  • (1) “Making Mathematics Count”. Smith Report HMSO 2004.
  • (2) “Teaching Statistics Across the 14- 19 Curriculum”. RSS. April 2005.

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