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Intriguing policy puzzle: the UK's static numeracy rate

16 Jun 2017

Catherine Paulson-Ellis

For anyone interested in skills one of the most intriguing policy puzzles of our time is why numeracy rates in the working population remain stubbornly static while literacy rates have improved and despite successive policy interventions.

The decline in the performance of young people and the inevitable aging effect mean that the numeracy levels of English adults are on go slow while those in many other countries go from strength to strength.

Pieces of the puzzle

Given the positive link between skills and productivity, why do we not think this is a major problem or even a national scandal? Most political parties talk about the need to invest in training but few show any recognition that this can be wasted if people are not able to learn, apply and adapt their new knowledge and skills.

When people – individuals, employers, policy-makers, politicians – think of maths they tend to think about school. Early years, primary and secondary education are all critically important but too often numeracy is seen as something that is fixed at age 16 rather than something which develops as people apply their education in work, leisure and living.

People tend to act on those things that directly matter to them so it must be the case that poor numeracy is not translating into a real-world everyday problem. And why not?  Automation removes the need for everyday calculations. People find workarounds and get help with or pass over numerical tasks to “experts”. Peoples’ skills are good enough for their jobs and they can overestimate their abilities. Employers generally don’t consider numeracy when recruiting and although GCSEs are increasingly used as for screening they are not a reliable indicator of numeracy.  

This finding from OECD’s recently published Skills Outlook 2017 is telling. Either people aren’t making much use of their maths, or they don’t recognise that they are, or most likely, a bit of both.

The hidden nature of numeracy in the workplace is increasingly well-documented but it poses a difficult question for policy: How do you address a problem which can be described theoretically but which is not experienced as a problem by the myriad actors in the real world? The simple truth is that you can’t.

You can put on classes and create online courses; some people will come but many won’t. You can get employers to take part in workplace training schemes, especially if all the leg-work is done for them, but these rarely generate spontaneous and ongoing demand for numeracy training. You can try to provide better information on the benefits of raising skills, but while this might be acknowledged, it too easily gets squeezed out in the face of more pressing business. What you have to do instead is start changing the terms of debate so that the systems are ready to deliver when the problems crystallise and start to feel real.  

Surveys can never really capture the complexity of using skills in the workplace and perhaps this is a bigger issue for numeracy than for other basic skills. Commissioning research is an easy option for government, but in the case of understanding how maths is perceived and used day to day it would be justified.

Government can also do what no single body can do alone – bear down on the “I can’t do maths” culture. This needs the weight of the state to generate momentum and support. As employer groups start to develop the technical education routes, there is a great opportunity for some thorough thinking on what being numerate looks like sector by sector.

Finally, not least because of Brexit, government, LEPs and devolved authorities all have to start asking the question, “where will we find our future workers?” and come up with some practical ways of ensuring that everyone in the labour market is numerate enough to get a job, train and retrain, potentially over and over. We can’t just rely on our youngest people to carry us through the next twenty years.


Catherine Paulson-Ellis is an independent consultant and trainee post-16 maths teacher. She was formerly the Head of English and Maths in BIS and DfE.