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Tackling the Challenge of Low Numeracy Skills in Young People and Adults

20 Jul 2018

Many learners entering vocational and further education have a basic level of numeracy.

The evidence suggests that apprenticeship provision is more effective when numeracy is developed as part of all post-16 training, rather than being optional. Effective teachers need to explore numeracy tasks in the contexts learners are going to find them - so that learners can gain confidence in applying mathematical techniques in their training, work and personal lives. Numeracy courses are motivating and engaging when they are mapped to the learners' goals - both long term and medium, personal and career. 

The desired outcome is that learners are able to solve problems that are life-like by being procedurally complex but theoretically simple.  When learning outcomes in vocational training and numeracy are not aligned, issues arise, as shared by the author of the report:

"An apprentice interviewed in a care home felt that the session on measuring weights had not helped her understand how to use scales in the kitchen to weigh out food for the residents with diabetes"

Tackling the Challenge of Low Numeracy Skills in Young People and Adults. 2011. Ofsted.

Unlike children, many adults - even those with the lowest levels of numeracy - will have previously developed some strategies for addressing numeracy problems or learned some relevant skills. Adult learners come into classroom (virtual or physical) with variable levels of knowledge and skills. Good tutors help their students recognise the capabilities they already have - making sure they do not undervalue the understanding they had already gained - their 'spiky profile'. They also explore with learners why they struggled in the past.

Effective tutors show learners how to build on previous knowledge, approach problems and analyse their incorrect answers. Many learners do not realise how useful it is to analyse a 'wrong answer' rather than 'feel stupid' when 'getting it wrong' over and over again.  Providers of effective numeracy training develop learners’ conceptual understanding of the methods and procedures used during the mathematics they are doing rather than relying on rote learning and memorisation.

Providers who have demonstrable impact, focus on teaching learners mathematical concepts - making them more independent and flexible in applying their knowledge . They develop learners’ problem solving skills. Multiple iterations of practising specific learning topics are less beneficial to learners than checking if they understand the concepts underpinning the topic, for example, teaching people common memory aids for solving problems rather than focusing on understanding principles.  

On numeracy courses in post-16 education, formative assessment needs to be more important than summative assessment. This means teachers need to track learner progress and ensure, at appropriate intervals, that individuals learning plans are appropriate and tailored to the learner’s needs. Weaker teaching providers often will do more ‘teaching to the test’ – relying too much on summative assessment i.e. practising for doing an exam.  

"Teaching in numeracy was more successful where providers had developed the role of one or more well-qualified and experienced numeracy specialists to support vocational trainers in planning and delivering learning sessions". 

Good providers have a system-wide vision of the needs within their institution, providing good governance. They assess learners on entry into post-16 education and track their progress through a system of formative assessment. They have a clear line of sight of the needs of all learners. Providers can then plan numeracy instruction for the needs of learners taking their courses.

Vocational teachers need to work with specialist numeracy tutors so that number related skills, concepts and activities are combined with practical activities at work. Good providers give staff who teach numeracy greater access to training leading to an appropriate qualifications for teaching numeracy. They also give them subject specific continuing professional development. 

Download the full report