Getting the message across

The fact that so many different organisations have signed up under the Maths4us banner and are promising a range of activities is great news. The timing is good. After many decades of often one step forwards and two steps back, it does feel as if the time might now be ripe really to ‘do something’ about the state of adult numeracy in this country.

It’s good timing for us in National Numeracy too. We are only a year old. We were launched last March as the first ever organisation with a mission to improve numeracy (by which we mean the use of maths in everyday life) across the UK and across the age range. We want to change negative attitudes to maths. We believe that the pervasiveness of the ‘I’m no good at maths’ mantra is one of the biggest things getting in the way of improvement.

Our first major project (we already have a smaller scale initiative underway in schools in north London) is the National Numeracy Challenge, which over five years will work with employers, colleges and outreach organisations – including Maths4us partners – to get a million adults measurably to improve their maths. We are currently engaged on the first step of this, developing an online assessment tool backed up by clarity about what the ’essentials of numeracy’ are.

However the challenge for us in National Numeracy – and indeed all of us involved in Maths4us – is getting people to the starting point. It’s very easy preaching to the converted, picking the low-hanging fruit and acting out various other clichés, but we do need to get the message over to people who don’t necessarily want to hear it: maths is vital in your daily life whoever you are; you can get better at it – it’s rubbish to say you’re rubbish at maths, but it takes effort. However (perhaps most important of all) support is available.

Changing attitudes is a slow burn. Among other things, we need the media. I remember how difficult it was to get anything about adult learning – let alone about maths/numeracy – on the radio news when I was BBC education correspondent. To most editors, education means schools (and sometimes universities, preferably Oxbridge). The first time I did get a piece on FE into the bulletins, it was because NATFHE had gone on strike. There was usually some interest in the annual survey from the Basic Skills Agency but that was generally regarded as the story about adults not being able to read and write.

I’d like to think things have changed – and indeed there was very welcome interest from the Today programme and others when National Numeracy was launched last year. But sustaining interest is going to take effort, especially when the message is not linked to shocking news: ‘17 million adults have the maths skills of primary school kids’ is always going to be more interesting than ‘1 million people improve their numeracy’. The job for us is to make the 17 million think about becoming part of the 1 million – if that is not numerically confusing.