The terms ‘numeracy’ and ‘mathematics’ are sometimes used interchangeably but the relationship between the two is actually quite complex.

We have described our definition and approach in what is numeracy. In this we focus on the numeracy skills and understanding that everyone needs both to live their lives and do their work effectively (skills such as calculating time, space or distance, using spreadsheets, checking invoices and VAT) and to be an engaged citizen who understands the use of numbers and data in the modern world (for example, being able manage their own finances and to make sense of statistics and financial or economic news reported in the media).

Importantly, this description goes beyond mere computation – it includes essential skills such as solving problems, understanding and explaining the solutions, making decisions based on logical thinking and reasoning, and interpreting data, charts and diagrams. The age of information technology presents us with more data than ever before and puts an ever greater premium on numeracy skills and understanding.

Our concept of numeracy is represented in the diagram below:

Numeracy and mathematics


Numeracy and school mathematics

Numeracy does include significant aspects of what is taught in school mathematics but it also includes skills that many feel are not adequately learnt in the classroom - the ability to use numbers and solve problems in real life. Many practitioners and researchers see numeracy as a concrete and practical capability, whilst mathematics – in its purest sense – becomes increasingly abstract as children progress through secondary school.

The relationship between numeracy and maths is problematic for many adults. They naturally equate the word ‘mathematics’ with their experience of lessons which many – especially those who struggled with maths at school - describe as ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant ’. They may feel that all the time spent in maths lessons did little to help them become numerate, and indeed many adults can be classified as ‘innumerate’ even after many years of compulsory schooling. 

Numeracy – for everyone, for life

Numeracy, when used in the same context as ‘literacy’, means having a grasp of numbers and data and the arithmetic and reasoning necessary for everyday life. It means confidently handling money, understanding interest, using timetables, working out journey times and interpreting graphs and charts - in other words, living in the modern world. As such, numeracy is a concrete and useful concept.

Clearly the foundations of numeracy are best laid young. All children should receive good teaching in school and those who struggle should get targeted support from the outset.

However, most of the population is no longer at school, so adult numeracy becomes an equally important focus. This means supporting those who failed to develop good numeracy skills when they were young.

Adults who struggle with numbers may face additional hurdles, such as a dislike (and painful memory) of classroom-based teaching or very low self-confidence and self-esteem. We therefore draw attention to two important priorities for adult education:

  1. people must be motivated to learn in the first place and confident that they can find the right support to develop their numeracy skills

  2. they must be taught useful skills within a meaningful and relevant context.

Some initiatives in the past have made a contribution to these but there is still much to be done. National Numeracy will seek to promote, support and champion developments and strategies that improve teaching, attitudes and skills for age groups across the whole population.

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