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Lincolnshire Co-op's numeracy success story

27 Feb 2023

By Lizzie Green, Communications Officer

Since December 2021 National Numeracy has been working with Lincolnshire Co-op to help improve number confidence among their colleagues. We spoke to their Learning & Development team to find out more about why they got involved, the value they’ve gained from the project, and their top tips for a business-wide approach:

A recognised business need

Improving number confidence at Lincolnshire Co-op was never a tick-box activity. We didn’t think “Oh, maths is really topical at the moment, let’s get in on this” – instead it came from a recognised business need.

We were using a new recruiting system where people could find our vacancies, create a profile, allocate interview times…it was a one-stop shop. We were also implementing a new HR system where colleagues could request leave, access rotas, timetables, pay slips…lots of things that are more number-focused than you may realise. So, there was a lot of new stuff that our staff would be facing where being numerate was key. And not numerate in terms of things like Pythagoras, but everyday maths. So, there was a real business need in relation to upskilling our colleagues, which went hand-in-hand with the need for digital confidence and literacy as well. It became a strategic focus for the CEO, Senior Leadership Team and board, to empower our colleagues with numeracy confidence and skills before we started rolling out the new system.

Our Head of People and Performance kept driving the need for numeracy support, along with the board. And during Learning at Work Week our CEO talked about the importance of numeracy and how it’s really key for any position or role; numeracy will always have an impact, so it’s important to consider it. When our Head of People and Performance got those of us in Learning & Development involved, we knew we had to focus on the messaging around it. When we had tried to offer numeracy support in one of our business areas before, it wasn’t well-received and fed into people’s anxieties around maths, with them fearing it was a witch-hunt for people with low confidence. We didn’t focus on the approach and cultural shift, which is what we now endorse as communication is the key to unlocking mindsets.

You have to set the tone and help people understand what it is because, especially with maths, there’s a fear factor that will put people off immediately. So, we decided it needed to be a whole-society approach, rather than just saying “Guys, maths is important, so here are some maths courses for you to do.” We were put in touch with Sally and Cassia at National Numeracy and had a really open discussion about our concern around our colleagues being disengaged, because there are such a variety of roles people are in and we needed to reach all of them. In retail, staff use a scanner and get told by the machine how much something costs with 25% off – but what if the scanner isn’t working? With travel agents – what if someone comes in and wants to know how much currency they can get for £500, and the one person who knows the conversions isn’t working? And all of our colleagues need to be able to tell if they’ve been paid correctly and able to read their payslip. So there was a dire need, and getting the messaging right was key.

Showing the value of improved numeracy skills

The meeting with Sally and Cassia was super. They talked us through the National Numeracy approach, which isn’t saying, “You need maths – what’s five times five?”, but instead saying, “Hang on a minute, how do you feel about maths?” And that was so key to how we wanted to endorse the project. Lincolnshire Co-op promotes behaviours that we all want to show – being helpful, inspiring, and trustworthy. But if we don’t understand the maths, how can we help our colleagues or customers? We had to show the value of it. We came away from the meeting with Sally and Cassia thinking it was brilliant, and exactly what we thought could work here.

Screen showing "How do you feel about maths?" on a video call with Lincolnshire Co-op staff

In our internal Wednesday Round-up communications, we started to tell people that we’d partnered with National Numeracy, and that the focus would be building skills but especially building confidence. We’d ask questions like, “In lockdown, did you have to support children with their homework? Did you have to do any DIY in the garden? Did you try to bake a lemon drizzle cake? Did you have to try and work out the best offer for a mortgage, or how being furloughed would affect your money management?” This messaging seemed to really work because suddenly people realised that maths is everywhere.

We then started promoting the Becoming a Numeracy Champion programme, making it clear what being a Champion involves, as well as continuing to promote numeracy in general. We had the comms team creating email signatures and other graphics to put in internal messages, whilst we went to things like managers' meetings and the People’s Forum which represents all of our business areas. Sally sent some great slides and we incorporated them into our messaging, and were able to adapt it based on who we were pitching to. This meant that when it came time for people to sign up they were already on board and knew what it was. We pre-warned about everything. When we did a survey about people’s confidence and needs, we announced it in advance, and did the same when we promoted the quick check. We were clear about what they were for – that the survey was to help us shape the support we could offer, and that it and the quick check were anonymous – and that none of it was intended as a witch hunt, but that we were just helping people gauge their own confidence and skills, so that we can help. It wasn’t, “We want you to do this,” but rather, “This opportunity is here because we care.” And that it wasn’t a one-off either – we were invested, that’s why we have a three-year partnership, so that we can build a foundation and then springboard from it. All of this helped the programme seem less intimidating. People knew they could be honest about how they felt with maths, without their jobs being at risk.

The big launch

From there we did a big launch, which went across all business areas with the survey and quick check, and was hosted on our online learning platform so we could monitor progress. All Learning & Development advisors were involved, so that there was someone responsible for every business area and they were driving it for the whole month. We had managers getting really competitive with each other, talking about how many people they’d got signed up! We’d set ourselves a target of getting 70% of people to engage with the survey and the quick check, which a lot of people thought we wouldn’t reach because it’s so hard getting people to talk about maths. But we smashed it! We had 87% complete them. A lot of people confirmed in the feedback that they did need help but hadn’t felt comfortable asking for it. Or people said they had avoided maths in the past and not made the most of opportunities to progress because they feared a maths component. From there, we asked people if they were interested to sign up as Numeracy Champions, and we had 345 positive responses – which is pretty epic!

We created two cohorts of Champions, with around 30 people in total, and the sessions we had with them were brilliant. Everyone was so honest in sharing their journeys with maths. Throughout this we kept updating people and had radio announcements in our stores signposting both colleagues and customers to National Numeracy. It meant people weren’t going, “What’s happening with that maths thing?” as we were constantly including it in communications.

Then for National Numeracy Day we had so many ideas we discussed with the National Numeracy team, and did so many things across our business areas: Number Natters, guessing games like ‘How many sweets in a jar?’, motivational boards, adapting the National Numeracy Day baking activity as a ‘Lincolnshire Co-op Cupcake Challenge’… We also made sure that every Learning & Development advisor that was doing training always included a slide with information about the numeracy programme, to give everyone an opportunity to take that up for further learning. When Sophie had sessions with adult learners, she’d hold Number Natters herself in those. We really did embed it in everything we did – it was a glittery thread, with which everyone went, “Oh, I guess this is how we make jumpers now!” The key thing was that we didn’t stop and rest on our laurels; we kept driving it forward.

Championing the Champions

It was also important to remember to support the Champions. You can’t just go, “We’ve got 30 Champions now; they can do it all”. It doesn’t end when you become a Champion, that’s when it starts – and someone needs to champion the Champions! Often people are like, “Well, I don’t have enough hours to do my job as it is, let alone be a Champion”, so it’s really great if you can support them with a pack of resources. We also made a Numeracy Champion group on our colleague app so that they could communicate with each other and drive each other forward, keeping the momentum going.

Picture of Tasha with a quote saying "It's done really well and people constantly talk about it; it's woven into what we do as a business."

And now, because we’ve got a three-year partnership, we’re able to reach out to the other 200+ people who wanted to be Champions! The longer partnership means it doesn’t have to be a now-or-never situation. Like Tasha, who had put herself forward the first time but wanted to build her own number confidence first. She’s now gone from hating maths, to feeling okay with it – which is massive! We have to be bound in realism – not everyone can go from feeling terrified to feeling awesome; that would be a massive jump. But for Tasha to not only feel comfortable about maths, but also know she doesn’t have to pretend to fully love it now, represents such a cultural shift at Lincolnshire Co-op. This supports our purpose: to bring together ideas, energy, and resources, to make life better in our communities.

Our advice for partnering with National Numeracy

Our advice for anybody wanting to form a partnership with National Numeracy is that if you’re just wanting to get people taking exams and qualifications then you’re going in with the wrong motivation, because the exams and qualifications are the end of the journey. You need to be aware of the harrowing pathway that people may have been on to get to the point they’re at now with maths. If you’re trying to achieve engagement, then you really need to look at the steps that National Numeracy put in place, and the focus on attitude and mindset. It’s okay to not be okay, you’re not alone, and that’s fine. Really take advantage of everything that National Numeracy has because there are so many resources, and so much support they can offer, based on 10 years of experience.

It’s so wonderful to now be going into the second year of the project, and to be building on such a wonderful, strong foundation!

Find out more about our work with Lincolnshire Co-op from a Champion and learner, or see how we work with the NHS...