Why is numeracy important?

“Good numeracy is the best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health.”

Andreas Schleicher, OECD.

Why is numeracy important?

We use maths in every aspect of our lives at work and in practical everyday activities at home and beyond. We use maths when we go shopping or plan a holiday, decide on a mortgage or decorate a room. Good numeracy is essential to us as parents helping our children learn, as patients understanding health information, as citizens making sense of statistics and economic news. Decisions in life are so often based on numerical information: to make the best choices, we need to be numerate.

Numeracy in the UK

Poor numeracy costs the UK dearly; research from Pro Bono Economics estimates poor numeracy skills cost the economy £20.2 billion every year. That cost is borne jointly by individuals, employers and the public purse. Within this, the average cost to individuals with poor numeracy is £460 a year. The UK needs a numerate population in order to build a strong economy and compete globally – especially with those countries which outstrip us in numeracy performance.

Numeracy and the individual

There is substantial evidence that low numeracy skills are associated with poor outcomes:  

  • Employment
    People with poor numeracy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed
  • Wages
    Recent data by the OECD show a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills
  • Health
    In OECD and UK basic skills reports, the correlation between poor numeracy and poor health is clear; data from the British Cohort Studies have shown that there is also a link between depression and poor numeracy
  • Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties
    Children with these problems are more likely to struggle with numeracy, even taking into account factors such as home background and general ability
  • School exclusions
    Pupils beginning secondary school with very low numeracy skills but good literacy skills have an exclusion rate twice that of pupils starting secondary school with good numeracy skills
  • Truancy
    14-year-olds who have poor maths skills at 11 are more than twice as likely to play truant
  • Crime 
    A quarter of young people in custody have a numeracy level below that expected of a 7-year-old, and 65% of adult prisoners have numeracy skills at or below the level expected of an 11-year-old.

Poor numeracy is also a problem in its own right. It can affect people’s confidence and self-esteem. Research from a review of adult up-skilling in numeracy by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has demonstrated that improving numeracy directly contributes to growth in personal and social confidence  

 

The digital age

The digital age presents us with more numerical data than ever before and puts a new premium on numeracy skills.

Computers can do the mathematical processing for us, but we need good numeracy in order to use them effectively – to enter the right data and decide whether the answer seems approximately right.

Right now around 90% of new graduate jobs require a high level of digital skills (Race Online 2012), and digital skills are built on numeracy.