Communication Counts!

Over the past few months I’ve been heavily involved in the gestation of a new charity, National Numeracy – The birth finally took place at the beginning of March – in a full (and very welcome) blaze of publicity. The story was covered in almost all the daily papers, featured prominently on the Today programme, BBC TV News, Sky News and attracted the interest of the World Service, Any Questions, the One Show and even – slightly bizarrely – the Voice of Russia.

New charities rarely achieve such celebrity. So as an exercise in public relations, it was clearly a job well done.  But what is it about National Numeracy that attracted (and I believe will continue to attract) such attention?

Put at its simplest, National Numeracy aims to improve the state of numeracy in the UK.  It also intends to change negative attitudes to maths: there’s a peculiarly British trait that allows people to brag that they’re ‘no good at maths’.

It helped that we had a story to tell. Nearly 17 million people in England – almost half the working-age population – have the numeracy skills expected of children at primary school (i.e. below Level 1, for those who prefer official terminology). What’s more, half of those have the skills of a nine-year-old or younger (below Entry Level 3). That means they may not be able to check pay and deductions on a wage slip, understand bus timetables or pay household bills.

The story was in fact a recycled one. The figures had first emerged, rather quietly, in a report from Vince Cable’s department in December. Most of the media either didn’t spot them or decided they were uninteresting.

But what the figures – resulting from the 2011 Skills for Life survey – showed was not only that the numeracy position was bad but that it had got worse in the eight years since the last survey and that the gap between numeracy and literacy was growing. Those with Level 2 or above (equivalent to GCSE A*-C) was up from 44% to 57% in literacy, but down from 26% to 22% in numeracy.

Recycled or not, the figures were both striking and shocking – although one radio producer did ask me, while deciding whether or not to cover the story, is maths that important?  Doubtless, he was thinking back to his own experience of blackboard formulae and querying the relevance of those to real life.

Well, yes actually, it is important, and – to state the obvious – maths is all around us in the way we interact with the world and with each other. If your maths is poor, you’re not going to be on top of your own personal finances: energy tariffs and APR will remain a mystery, ‘cheap’ credit offers will be lying in wait to trap you. You’re going to struggle to help your children with maths schoolwork, and you’re not going to get a better – or maybe any – job.

It doesn’t take too much insight either to see that poor numeracy matters to the economy. KPMG estimated the annual cost to the UK of poor numeracy at £2.4 billion. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have fewer young people continuing maths beyond 16 than almost all other developed countries. (Scotland does a little better, probably because of a broader curriculum in later secondary.) And of course this adversely affects the numbers going into science, engineering and technology at university – and into teaching. Only last week it was reported that half of the maths teacher training places for September are unfilled.

None of this is a new story and perhaps the fact that it is not a new story is the story. We’ve known for decades that the UK has this problem but, in spite of periodic hand-wringing, things have barely shifted.

At National Numeracy, the view is that no-one – child or adult – should be written off as being no good at maths. With good teaching and encouragement, everyone can get better at it. We will be both proselytising and working with others on practical projects to spread the word on what does work and identify gaps where new thinking is needed.

Others have tried some of this before, but never as single-mindedly as National Numeracy aims to. For a long time, numeracy has sat within the shadow of literacy: the debate about basic skills nearly always centred on reading and writing. The recent improvement in adult literacy is therefore to be welcomed – it shows what you can do if public attention and effort are thrown at a problem. The time has arrived for a concerted effort to do the same for numeracy.

Linden Lea associate Wendy Jones is a trustee of National Numeracy and formerly BBC education correspondent and head of BBC education policy.