Everyone needs to be numerate to maximise their life chances and to make a positive contribution to society.

The UK needs a numerate population in order to build a strong economy and to compete globally.

We are currently failing to achieve this.

The effect of poor numeracy on people’s lives is often much less obvious than poor literacy. But there is substantial evidence that low numeracy skills are associated with poor outcomes for many people. This has a negative impact on them and their families – and on society as a whole.

The direct impact

Poor numeracy is a problem in its own right. People who struggle to use numbers may feel embarrassed by their difficulties, and this can affect their confidence and self-esteem. They may be unable to help their children with their maths homework and be reluctant to apply for a more demanding job. They may fail to manage their money well or to get the best deals when shopping.

Associated issues

The relationship between poor numeracy and more general disadvantage is complex and not dependent on simple cause and effect. And yet there are some striking associations:

  • employment: people with poor numeracy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those competent in numeracy

  • social, emotional and behavioural difficulties: Children with these problems are more likely than other children to struggle with numeracy, even taking into account factors such as home background and general ability

  • school exclusions: pupils beginning secondary school with very low numeracy skills but good literacy skills have an exclusion rate twice that of pupils starting secondary school with good numeracy skills

  • truancy: 14-year-olds who had poor mathematics skills at 11 are more than twice as likely to play truant as those achieving the expected skills at 11

  • crime: A quarter of young people in custody have a numeracy level below that expected of a seven-year-old, and 65% of adult prisoners have numeracy skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old (read more about levels).

What’s the financial impact?

The cost to the state of an individual’s innumeracy is shocking. KPMG calculated that the total lifetime costs for an annual cohort of 35,843 children with very poor numeracy (the lowest-performing 5%) could be up to £2,389m, compared to a cost of £89m for additional support to raise the numeracy skills of these children through the Every Child Counts programme.

Numeracy and the modern economy

The need for numeracy in the workplace is greater than ever. There are fewer unskilled jobs in manufacturing, but there has been growth in the service industry, where roles often require an understanding of IT, target-setting or financial awareness.

Poor numeracy affects individuals’ ability to succeed in the workplace and acts as a brake on the country’s economic growth. Improving the national skills quota (from basic skills, including numeracy and literacy, to higher skills, such as engineering) is fundamental to increasing productivity and therefore economic growth. According to the 2006 Leitch Review of Skills:

‘Without increased skills, we would condemn ourselves to a lingering decline in competitiveness, diminishing economic growth and a bleaker future for all.’

It is difficult to quantify the exact extent to which improving numeracy skills would result in higher economic growth but the 2010 OECD report, ‘The High Cost of Low Educational Achievement’, projected a potential increase of 0.44% on the UK’s annual GDP if the 10% of 15-year-olds who failed to reach the OECD minimum standard were brought up to that minimum level.

More important than literacy?

Numeracy appears to play a more crucial role than literacy in influencing when a person leaves school. Those with poor numeracy but reasonable literacy are just as likely to leave school at 16 as those with both poor numeracy and literacy skills, implying that numeracy is the more significant factor. There is more on Numeracy – hidden behind literacy? here.

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What the research says

What the research says

Some of the headlines
from recent research
into numeracy

The long term effects

The long-term cost of numeracy difficulties report

A KPMG report for Every Child a Chance Trust identifying a £2.4 billion cost to public purse each year

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