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Research summary

Adult Numeracy: A Review of Research (2009)

20 Jul 2018

Low numeracy worsens gender inequalities, geographic inequalities and economic disadvantages originating in childhood.

Adult numeracy is historically under-researched and under-theorised. A lot of the research that already exists is school-based and focused on the individual elements and operations of numeracy. 

Although levels of low adult numeracy and its outcomes are increasingly better understood, less is known about how to tackle the issue. Adults’ engagement and motivation when it comes to learning later in life are particularly challenging.

Two researchers in the UK, Byner and Parsons, have particularly helped drive the debate around numeracy by demonstrating the specific relationship between poor numeracy skills and negative life outcomes – from employment to depression. Their and other researchers' work has increasingly demonstrated the importance of improving adult numeracy.

JD Carpentieri, Jenny Litster, and Lara Frumkin. 2009. Adult Numeracy: A Review of Research. NRDC.

Carpentieri, Litster and Frumkin’s report provides perhaps the most comprehensive overviews of the history of trying to understand and measure numeracy in the UK. It covers a wide span, including findings from early OECD skills surveys, analysis of the Skills for Life Surveys, the British Cohort Study and projects ran during the Skills for Life Strategy

In 1981, the National Child Development Survey, also known as the British Cohort Survey, asked participants to take a numeracy test. The 1990s saw a significant rise in basic skills assessments. In particular, in 1996, the UK featured in IALS - The International Adult Literacy Survey conducted by the OECD.

Britain’s poor performance amongst 20 other countries led Sir Claus Moser to ask the government, in 1999, to consider the available evidence on adult literacy and numeracy in England and suggest some ways of amending the situation. The Skills for Life strategy was launched in 2001 and produced two surveys – one in 2003 and one in 2011. These found that millions of people were at a numeracy level too poor to function well in society. 

The findings collectively identify how low numeracy worsens gender inequalities, geographic inequalities and economic disadvantages originating in childhood. 

In the 2003 Skills for Life survey, while poor numeracy was often coupled with poor literacy, many people had numeracy skills one level below their literacy skills. Early finding also showed that adults who are out of work lose their skills - an issue that is particularly acute for numeracy. Those who have low numeracy skills and remain at work are less likely to receive a pay increase or get a promotion.

Often adults do not recognise the mathematics they actually do in daily life, instead labelling it is ‘common sense’ and not seeing any connections to the subject they learned at school. There is a palpable disconnect between school and adult maths. Low self-perception of difficulties presents a major problem for policy makers trying to motivate adults to take part in numeracy training. Inversely, when adults do recognise the problem, they are often driven to improve their skills.

Finally, Moser's report highlights that when adults do sign up for further training, embedding teaching in skills important to a student’s background increased their motivation. It's notable that embedding numeracy in vocational training had a powerful effect on achievement in both areas.

Download the full report