National numeracy day is a rallying point in the UK’s ongoing battle to get over its maths problemby Wendy Jones / May 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Maths makes people nervous. Being asked to do a spot of mental arithmetic can set the heart racing and the blood pressure rising. If this feels familiar, you are not alone. Maths anxiety is a well aired research subject that attracts a fair amount of interest in the classroom. But it affects a lot of adults too. And many of us let ourselves off the hook by declaring that we are not numbers people, that maths isn’t our thing and that really it doesn’t matter.
But this month we’re all being invited to ditch our gremlins and take part in the UK’s first ever Numeracy Day, on 16th May. The charity behind it, National Numeracy (NN), aims to spread the message that numbers are worth celebrating, that we all need them and that we can all learn to make use of them. Yes, there have been other national or even international maths days. But these tend to be aimed at (mainly young) people who already like maths; they are often highly competitive and almost certain to convince anyone with negative feelings towards maths that they are right. 16th May will be less exclusive.
To start with, it’s about numeracy not maths. By numeracy I mean the practical application of numbers to everyday life, where problems rarely present themselves as ready-made maths questions. Nor is numeracy just about mental arithmetic (although being able to work things out in your head is always useful—and can be learnt). Perhaps it’s better to think of it as number sense and skill—understanding how words and numbers combine to make numerical concepts, working out what the question is, knowing what to put in the calculator and recognising whether the answer is in the right ballpark.
All the evidence suggests that too many people don’t go through those steps comfortably. A few years back a government skills-for-life survey suggested that half the population had primary school-level numeracy. Recent evidence suggests little has changed. A report from the Money Advice Service (MAS) showed 45 per cent of people struggling with questions like:
Susie is paid £9.00 an hour. She gets a 5 per cent pay increase. What is her new pay per hour?
Susie buys a laptop costing €144 from a company in Germany, at an exchange rate of £1 = €1.20. What is the cost in pounds?
Even those in higher education are not immune. Research among social science under-graduates (carried out by NN, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and yet to be published) suggests only about a quarter have GCSE-level numeracy skills (what NN calls the “essentials of numeracy”), regardless of whether they have GCSE maths (and they almost certainly will have). Think about it. These are young people studying subjects that are usually highly dependent on quantitative data.
The cost of poor numeracy to the UK economy has been put at £20bn annually. The cost to the individual is perhaps better expressed in stories—healthcare assistants wanting to train as nurses but put off by the numeracy they will need, parents passing on their negative (“I’m no good at maths”) feelings to their children, too many of us trying to make sense of data used and sometimes abused by people wanting to win our votes or sell us something.
One of the most striking correlations is between numeracy and financial capability. The MAS report above showed that the 45 per cent with poor or low numeracy—the ones who struggled with the Susie questions—were less likely to save money and more likely to fall behind with the bills (even controlling for income and other variables). Financial capability is complex and incorporates many factors, but if you don’t get the figures, you are less likely to make good decisions.
However those in the 45 per cent don’t need to be stuck there for ever. Having poor numeracy is not a permanent state. Most people who put their minds to it, for example with help from NN’s numeracy check-up, do improve. Further research funded by MAS shows that such improvements lead to people feeling more confident and in control financially. (It is possible to be over-confident about your money skills, but in general if people feel better about how they manage their money, they are better at it.)
Of course national or international “days” don’t alter the direction of civilisation at a stroke. Breaking down prejudice and persuading people that better numeracy is worth it and possible is a slow process of attrition. But National Numeracy Day should at least be a useful rallying point in the UK’s ongoing battle to get over its numeracy problem.