Facts and Figures

The last adult skills review to feature all four regions of the UK was conducted in 1996. Since then, different UK regions have selectively completed different national and international evaluations of basic skills. This means that, at times, the evidence presented here is tilted towards England – as the largest region of the UK and the one which has featured in the most assessments. There is some indication that the skill differences between UK regions are not particularly large – although variation does exist, as indicated below. You can read more about measuring adult skills at http://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/levels.


Overview of the UK

Across the UK, around 4 in 5 adults have a low level of numeracy - roughly defined as the adult skills equivalent of being below GCSE grade C level. In 2011, the Skills for Life Survey showed that numeracy skills in England declined in the 8 years from 2003, whereas literacy improved. The difference between the two areas was already large - on average people tend to be at least one level better at literacy than in numeracy. These findings led to the realisation that 17 million adults in England are working at a level roughly equivalent to that expected of children at primary school. Around 30% of the people who rated their skills as “very good” performed poorly - showing a sizable lack of awareness of this problem. (1)

Children in the UK lag behind top achieving countries in their ability to formulate situations mathematically.

The maths they are taught at school does not necessarily overlap with the maths that can best help them later in life. Among 16 to 24 year olds who passed their GCSEs with a C or above, only 24% were at the adult equivalent – Level 2 (1d).

Our recent YouGov poll (16) showed that 1 in 4 UK adults believe that school maths did not prepare them well for maths in everyday life. Of these, 47% felt the subject had not been well taught, 45% felt they had not received enough support when struggling, and 40% felt their lessons had not been practical enough and had included too much theory.

Roughly 2 in 5 people (36%) said that poor maths skills had in some way held them back in their daily life. This rose to 4 in 5 for those who rated their numeracy skills as "poor" or "very poor". The other most common areas where people felt held back were in measuring and weighing (in cooking, DIY or administering medicine doses) and in understanding statistics in the media – about 1 in 10 of the overall survey group in each case.

  • 1 in 5 (19%) of those unemployed had felt held back by maths when job-hunting.
  • 3 in 10 of those who rated their skills as poor said it had affected their work.
  • Around 1 in 5 adults with children in their household had felt held back in helping children with school work.

Attitudes towards numeracy in the UK are poor. Yougov asked the UK population on our behalf whether they would be embarrassed to say that they are poor at maths. Just under half the UK population believe it's socially acceptable to be bad at maths.


A Competitive Workforce

In 2006, Lord Leitch warned that the UK would need to reach specific skills targets for 2020 in order to compete in the international economy. Yet the recent International Survey of Adult Skills led the OECD to conclude that "The talent pool of highly skilled adults in England and Northern Ireland is likely to shrink relative to that of other countries" (8). England’s adult population is becoming less - not more - competitive. Currently, when it comes to adults' skills, England performes below the OECD average. Countries where the education system is improving are overtaking the UK. While the UK's 55-65 year olds rank 12th, our 16-24 year olds rank 20th internationally.

The latest UKCES report showed that there is a rise in skills shortage vacancies associated with a lack of numeracy skills. Currently about 26% of skills shortage vacancies result from a lack of numeracy skills(2). This issue seems particularly relevant as one to address, given the current high rates of unemployment.

It is important to address this imbalance. Better numeracy will not only make Britain more internationally competitive, it will contribute to the well-being of the UK population. Parsons and Bynner (3) analysed the social and economic circumstances of the participants in the UK Cohort study and discovered that, in a number of ways, low numeracy is an especially strong predictor for long-term deprivation.


Benefits of Numeracy

Across a variety of reports it can be seen that high numeracy is particularly correlated with a higher likelihood of the following positive social outcomes:

In OECD reports and the UK basic skills reports, the correlation between poor numeracy and poor health is clear in the data. Research by Prof Gill Rowlands has proposed that poor numeracy feeds into poorer health and higher mortality (4). This is the result of limited participation in screening for diseases, lack of understanding of one's treatment plan and difficulties managing chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Complex longitudinal data from the British Cohort Studies has shown that there is also a link between depression and poor numeracy (5). Research from a review of adult upskilling in numeracy by the Department for Business and Industry has demonstrated that improving one's numeracy contributes to a larger amount of personal and social confidence (6). In that study, 77% of those who took up the training said it improved their quality of life, while 43% reported that they use maths and numbers more often. Learners found maths courses tougher but more rewarding than literacy courses. They reported being able to avoid embarrassment surrounding inability to perform numeracy tasks, having a larger degree of control over tasks involving numeric elements and a lesser need to employ 'work-around' solutions.

There is also a wage premium associated with having better numeracy. In 2008, KPMG's report on the cost of poor numeracy estimated the wage premium is on average 10% (7). Recent data by the OECD (8), illustrated below, has shown that there is a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills. Across a number of reports it is also evident that there are signficiantly higher rates of low numeracy amongst the unemployed.


The impact of numeracy skills on personal finances is more wide-ranging than higher wages. There is an indication that numeracy skills need to be directly addressed in order to tackle people's financial decision making. In 2013, MAS revealed (9) that 16% of the population are unable to identify the available balance on a bank statement while 1 in 10 cannot identify the better deal. Staggeringly, just over half of those surveyed did not make a budget.

While anxieties about dealing with money and poor understanding of financial concepts contribute to such figures, that is hardly the whole story. In the 2012 PIAAC survey, 53% of adults in Northern Ireland said they never use fractions, decimals and percentages (10). Research conducted by the World Bank has shown that "a financial education programme has a very limited role in equipping individuals to evaluate complex financial trade-offs that require high numeracy skills" (11). Reflecting these links, research has shown that numeracy levels can predict mortgage defaults (12).


The Education System

Coming from a disadvantaged background increases the chance of an adult having poor basic skills in general. Numeracy is related to general social deprivation. This is not an outcome set in stone – countries vary in the degree to which general deprivation impacts educational results and the reproduction of social inequality. Historically in the UK, adults who end up having poor numeracy are two times more likely to have left school at age 16 and to have had a child in their teens, and five times more likely to have achieved no qualifications by age 34 (5). Results from PISA 2012 showed that (with some variation between the different regions of the UK) socio-economic background had a 10 - 20% contribution to the numeracy achievements of young people aged 15 to 16. However, as highlighted by the OECD, children of prefessionals in the UK still only perform at the level of children of cleaners in Shanghai (13). Children in the UK performed at the OECD average despite having higher education spending and GDP than the OECD average.

In their international audit of young people's abilities, PISA evaluated that Britian's children in 2012, like the adults, were performing at an average level. Young people's educational outcomes have not improved in years - we're flat-lining. Compared with top scoring countries, the UK had more than two times more children performing poorly and a very low percentage of top scorers. In the UK, the proportion of students who perform under the minimum for their age hovers around the 20% mark (the average is 24% across OECD countries). Those students can perform – at best – routine mathematical procedures following direct instructions. This compares to less than 10% in Japan and Korea and less than 4% of students in Shanghai China.


The drop off of achievement through the different stages of maths performance in the UK is progressive. Take England's attainment results as an example. The Department of Education's statistics show that 15% of primary school children (Key Stage 2) did not reach the requirements for maths, while for GCSEs (Key Stage 4) that rose to 32% - where 7% do not even attempt to complete the module. A very small proportion of those who do not make the grade attempt again (less than 35%). This is especially the case for those who achieved lower grades.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, about 85% of students give up maths after GCSE. In almost all other developed countries, nearly all students continue maths to 18 (14). This suggests that students in the UK are not motivated to learn maths. The PISA 2012 attitudinal survey revealed that students who do maths because they enjoy it are more likely to perform well. However, children in the UK are a third less likely to say they enjoy maths than children in Shanghai.

Employers and Numeracy

Employees and employers, people and businesses would like to see numeracy training improved. Our YouGov survey found that about 31% - that's almost 1/3 of the UK population - would like to improve their numeracy skills. This echoes other research findings (5)

The latest CBI surveys (15) show that roughly a fifth (18%) of employers had to provide remedial numeracy training to school leavers joining their organisation. Employers' concerns about their existing employees’ numeracy skills are as follows:

  • Two-thirds (68%) are concerned about their employees’ ability to spot errors and rogue figures
  • Almost a third (30%) have concerns about their workforce’s capability with basic multiplication and arithmetic calculations
  • Over a third (37%) believe that using fractions, decimals and ratios prove difficult for many of the workforce

While employers (72%) are happy with their high skilled employees, about 51% are aware of weaknesses in their wider employee set when it comes to maths skills.




a. St Clair, Ralph, Lyn Tett, and Kathy Maclachlan. 2010. “Scottish Survey of Adult Literacies 2009: Report of Findings.”

b. Wheater, R., Burge, B., Sewell, J., Sizmur, J., Worth. J. and Williams, J. 2013. The International Survey of Adult Skills 2012: Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving Skills in Northern Ireland. Belfast: DELNI.

c. Welsh Government Social Research. 2010. “National Survey of Adult Skills in Wales.”

d. Department for Business Innovation and Skills. 2012. "Skills for Life Survey 2011."

e. Department for Business Innovation and Skills. 2003. "Skills for Life Survey."


UKCES. 2014. “The UK Commission’s Employer Skills Survey 2013 : UK Results.”


Parsons, Samantha, and John Bynner. 2005. "Does Numeracy Matter More? National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy London."


Protheroe, Joanne, Don Nutbeam, and Gill Rowlands. 2009. “Health Literacy: A Necessity for Increasing Participation in Health Care.” The British Journal of General Practice 59 (567): 721–23.

Nicola Gray. 2009. “Health Literacy Is Not Just Reading and Writing.” The Pharmaceutical Journal 283 (September).


JD Carpentieri, Jenny Litster, and Lara Frumkin. 2009. “Adult Numeracy: A Review of Research”. NRDC.


Department for Business Innovation and Skills. 2013. “English and Maths Provision for Adult Learners: Benefits”. BIS research paper number 129: Investigating the Benefits of English and Maths Provision for Adult Learners. NRDC & SQW. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/english-and-maths-provision-for-adult-learners-benefits.


KPMG. 2008. “The Long Term Costs of Numeracy Difficulties”. Every Child A Chance.


PIAAC 2012, Data downloaded through http://piaacdataexplorer.oecd.org/ide/idepiaac/.

UK Country note at: http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac/country-specific-material.htm


Money Advice Service. 2013. “The Financial Capability of the UK.” https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/static/the-financial-capability-of-the-uk.


R. Wheater, B. Burge, J. Sewell, J. Sizmur, and J. Worth. 2012. “The International Survey of Adult Skills 2012: Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Problem Solving Skills in Northern Ireland.”


Fenella Carpena, Shawn Cole, Jeremy Shapiro, and Bilal Zia. 2011. “Unpacking the Causal Chain of Financial Literacy”. WPS5798. The World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2011/09/15084797/unpacking-causal-chain-financial-literacy.


Gerardi, Kristopher, Lorenz Goette, and Stephan Meier. 2013. “Numerical Ability Predicts Mortgage Default.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June, 201220568.


OECD 2014 "Do parents’ occupations have an impact on student performance?" PISA in Focus - 2014/02 (February)


Roger Porkess, Chris Budd, Richard Dunne, Pepe Rahman-Hart, and Carol Vorderman. 2011. “(The Vorderman Report) A World-Class Mathematics Education for All Our Young People.”


CBI. 2010. “Making It All Add up: Business Priorities for Numeracy and Maths.”

CBI and Pearson. 2013 “Changing the Pace: CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2013.”


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