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National Numeracy press release

28 Feb 2012

New independent charity aims to challenge UK’s negative attitudes to maths.

The number of adults with poor numeracy skills has reached 17 million in England alone – very nearly half the working-age population. The figure has increased by nearly two million over the last eight years (from 47% to 49%) and is a disturbing indictment of national attitudes to numeracy, according to a new charity, National Numeracy, launched today. It far exceeds the equivalent figure for poor literacy – five million adults.

National Numeracy is highlighting largely ignored figures from a 2011 government Skills for Life survey (based on 7,000 adults aged 16-65) which show that one in two adults has numeracy skills roughly equivalent to those expected of children at primary school and may not be able to understand pay and deductions on a wages slip. This is the first time that an organisation has been set up solely to champion the vital importance of numeracy for people of all ages. National Numeracy seeks to emulate the success of the National Literacy Trust (founded 1993) which has helped transform lives through literacy.

The organisation also revealed the results of a YouGov poll of 2000 adults, which it commissioned last month and which found that, while 80% of adults would be embarrassed to tell someone they were bad at reading and writing, only slightly more than half (56%) would be embarrassed to say they were bad at maths.

Chris Humphries, chair of National Numeracy and former chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), said: “It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say ‘I can’t do maths’. It’s a peculiarly British disease which we aim to eradicate. It doesn’t happen in other parts of the world, and it’s hitting our international competitiveness. With encouragement and good teaching, everyone can improve their numeracy.”

Graeme Hughes, corporate affairs director at Nationwide Building Society, one of the founding sponsors of National Numeracy, said: “It is unacceptable that there are so many people in the UK with poor numeracy skills. Not only does numeracy affect employability, but it is also a cornerstone to building financial capability. By investing in National Numeracy and helping to kick start this campaign, we’re hoping to have a real impact on numeracy levels, creating new opportunities for people across the UK.”

Support for the new organisation also comes from BT chairman and founding chairman of UKCES, Sir Mike Rake, who said: “Poor numeracy is the hidden problem that blights the UK economy and ruins individuals’ chances in life. It’s so often overshadowed by concerns about literacy, and yet there is evidence to suggest that numeracy may be an even clearer indicator of economic and personal success.”

There is support too from TV’s Countdown presenter, Rachel Riley, who said: “If children are engaged with maths from an early age and enjoy the subject, they are far more likely to be successful in it. We need to find imaginative ways to switch them on to maths and teach them to be proud to be numerate.”

Mike Ellicock, chief executive of National Numeracy, said the government’s figures also revealed that, whilst there has been a significant improvement in the proportion of adults with literacy skills equivalent to the level of GCSE A*-C, up from 44% to 57% since the last survey in 2003, the figure for numeracy has actually dropped from 26% to 22%. He added:

“We welcome the improvement in literacy, but it’s vital that attention is now turned to the state of numeracy.”

The new organisation, whose founding sponsors alongside Nationwide Building Society include the Rayne Foundation, Oxford University Press and John Lyon’s Charity, will campaign to change negative attitudes to maths and also work with partner organisations to identify and spread new ways of improving the standard of numeracy.

For further information or requests for interview call 01273 915044 

Note to editors

  • Nationwide Building Society is the world’s largest building society, the UK’s second largest savings provider and third largest mortgage lender. It is also a major provider of current accounts, credit cards and personal loans. With around 16 million members, Nationwide has a relationship with almost a quarter of the UK population. In the first half of 2010/2011 alone, it helped 10,000 people buy their first home.
  • The Rayne Foundation provides funding and support to address issues in arts, education, health, and social welfare and development. It has a rolling programme of areas of special interest. One such is the UK’s neglect of numeracy. Here the Foundation has played a key role: first in researching this neglect and responses to it, and latterly in founding National Numeracy.
  • Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship and education by publishing worldwide.
  • John Lyon’s Charity is a grant-making charity that promotes the life chances of children and young people through education and works in nine north-west London boroughs.