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Research summary

Count Me In (2010)

20 Jul 2018

The issue of numeracy in the UK is such that standards will only rise significantly enough if there is a coherent, overarching strategy. 

In April 2010, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) published a report highlighting the acute nature of numeracy issues in the UK and the association between poor numeracy and negative outcomes in people’s lives. It suggests there was a need for a charity to work specifically in this field, to match the work done by the National Literacy Trust.  

Good interventions had so far happened locally across the UK, and within targeted projects, but that work had been too fragmented. Analysing the state of the issue, NPC identified the widespread negative attitude towards numbers in the UK as a major barrier to improving skills – one that had to be addressed to enable future progress.  

They pointed out that improving numeracy skills is best done young. However, for those who fall through the system, innovative ways to teach need to be developed. Finally, they stressed the need for a national campaigning voice and coordinating body on improving the numeracy of children and adults.

Vernon, Belinda, Eleanor Stringer, and Esther Paterson. 2010. Count Me In: Improving Numeracy in England. 

Following the example of leading scholars and practitioners in the UK, NPC defined numeracy beyond the simple ability to calculate:

“Numeracy is not a set of rules about how to add or divide, but is a way of approaching and solving a problem with numbers and symbols. … To be numerate means to be competent, confident, and comfortable with one’s judgement on whether to use mathematics in a particular situation and if so, what mathematics to use, how to do it, what degree of accuracy is appropriate, and what the answer means in relation to the context.”

Often the conversation around maths is focused on high level numeracy skills. For the purposes of tackling disadvantage, NPC highlighted the issue of those with very poor numeracy skills and pulled together existing research on the status quo to lead into suggesting possible interventions. Poor numeracy is closely co-related with a number of negative social outcomes including: being unemployed, behavioural difficulties, school exclusion and crime. 

Socio-economic disadvantage is one predictor of poor performance in numeracy. However, the quality of teaching in schools is another key factor. Schools across the UK do not deliver adequately numerate adults. This is not necessary because students do achieve the preferred GCSE maths qualification. About a quarter of those who do, are not performing at the equivalent adult level immediately after. NPC connect that outcome to Ofsted’s assessment that the teaching of mathematics at UK schools involves too much “teaching to the test”. 

Adults with poor numeracy face significant barriers: ingrained fear of maths, dislike of classroom-based teaching, low self-esteem. They need motivation and incentives to learn - such as better employment opportunities or improved ability to help children with homework. When learning is delivered, it needs to be embedded in relevant contexts so it can engage learners’ attention and so give them the skills they need. 

Attitudes are the biggest barrier to achieving in maths – particularly the belief that numbers are something that  you are either good or bad at, rather than a skill that you can improve. In particular, gender plays a part in this misconception. The belief that girls struggle more with maths than boys becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The wider report provides a deeper look into the different ways in which the government, together with the third sector, can deliver better results in the area of low numeracy. 

Download the full report