Why are numeracy skills in adults still so low?

27 Mar 2021, 7:25

Despite interventions and investment, maths ‘phobia’ continues to hold learners back, writes Dipa Ganguli

Are you a parent, or do you know any, who dreads having to help with maths homework? In a restaurant, do you hate having to calculate the tip on a bill? Does understanding your mortgage interest payments seem like an insurmountable task?  

If so, you are definitely not alone. 

A few years ago while teaching percentages in my level 2 functional skills maths class, a learner simply got up and left the class.

Naturally concerned, I followed and found her crying outside. 

The learner told me that she worked at a travel agency. Her tears were tears of joy as she realised that, for the first time, she would be able to calculate her commission because she now understood percentages. 

At level 2, which requires the application of two or more steps involving calculation, learners would be expected, for example, to work out “25 minus 2 x 32 or write 3/5 as a decimal”. 

You think most adults would be able to answer such questions.  

However, here in the UK in 2021 government statistics suggest that 17 million adults – 49 per cent of the working-age population of England – have the numeracy level that we expect of primary school children. 

Maths is part of everyday life. Yet the idea that you are either innately good or bad at maths persists in western countries. 

Indeed, it seems to be socially acceptable to be bad at maths. We do not hear adults bragging about being someone who can’t spell or read well, but we do hear people happily assert that maths is “not my thing”. 

‘Change attitudes first’

In response to Lord Moser’s 1999 review into adult basic education, New Labour launched the Skills for Life strategy in 2001 with stretching targets.

It was reasonably successful, with more than 14 million adults supported over a ten-year period to improve their skills. The Skills for Life strategy and subsequent interventions were seeking to address the issue of low-skilled adults. 

Now, the question is why are we not seeing an increase in UK numeracy levels, despite so much intervention and focus?

What lessons can we learn from our experiences to ensure outcomes for future generations are more positive? 

We do not hear adults bragging about being someone who can’t spell or read well

Perhaps an improvement in the numeracy skills of adults can only be brought about if we firstly work to change people’s attitude towards mathematics. We could explore their feelings towards the subject, identifying their phobias and developing strategies to overcome those barriers. 

If we can create a learning-oriented environment – where individual improvements, not grades, become the benchmark of success – instead of the performance-oriented environment we currently have, then maybe we will start to see maths-associated anxiety levels fall. In turn, skill levels could rise. 

People’s introduction to maths and how it is “sold” to them is paramount. In an important study, researchers found that when mothers told their daughters they were not good at maths in school, their daughter’s achievement declined almost immediately.  

There is a notion that parents’ perception of their role in relation to their child’s schooling is influenced by their own experiences of schooling. It is this cycle that needs to be broken.  

‘Use maths in the everyday’

The diverse nature of primary school teaching also needs to be addressed.

It is not uncommon to hear primary teachers admit (off the record) to not liking maths or not putting it in their top three subjects, even though they spend a good portion of their working lives teaching it. Perhaps there is scope for greater involvement of maths specialists.  

We should also think about the role of family learning in supporting intergenerational maths education out of school. 

This could improve students’ understanding of how maths can be used in everyday situations, to improve attitudes and develop appreciation of the value and relevance of maths in a variety of contexts. 

This in turn will create a generation who will be confident in the use of numbers. 

We in FE need to foster positive attitudes towards life-long maths learning, promoting socio-economic resilience and challenging educational disadvantage.


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  1. Lee Rogers

    I agree with Dipa that we need to link maths to everyday events for adults, but I believe that the level 2 Reformed Functional Skills maths curriculum has moved away from being ” functional”.
    I have heard talk that they are considering splitting the level 2 maths into 2 levels, one for university entry and one for those who want to prove they can do maths, or as a steppingstone, which is what they were originally designed for. Has anyone else heard this?

  2. How on earth would the financiers of the world flog their financial products if adults could work out what a good deal looks like!

    Look at the link between social inequality / mobility, PISA scores and economic output of the financial sector as a proportion of the economy. Compare this by nation and see what you can deduce.

    Meanwhile, the FE sector still chases the dragon of lifelong learning loans (RPI + 3%) in the belief that somehow higher earnings will follow (cos those flogging the loans provide the data!).

    (same with house prices, mortgages, pensions, insurance etc – carbon offsetting schemes are next…)