You are paid £9/hour and receive a 5% pay rise. What is your new rate of pay?
This is a simple enough question: one that every employee should be able to work out the answer to, whether in their heads, with pencil and paper or with help from the calculator on their phones. We could give many other similar examples, of ordinary, everyday maths that people need to be able to do. They need to do it to interpret and act upon business data and to get on in life. Collectively they need to do it for the sake of the future prosperity of the UK. We are yet to find any business leader who disagrees with this. It is not controversial.
However, research released today – National Numeracy Day – is remarkably consistent with other sources, which all suggest that around half of working age adults have the everyday maths skills that we expect of primary school children (so would struggle to correctly answer the question above) and only around a quarter are at or above the level that we expect of a 16-year-old.
We are working to better understand the impact of this collective innumeracy – the headline is an annual cost of £20.2 billion – but we are yet to see any evidence that it will be possible to generate a significant improvement in UK productivity or household financial capability without addressing the issue. We see a basic level of numeracy as a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for productivity improvement and for individual financial capability – but, with the exception of our work in the NHS, we are yet to see organisations addressing this in a systemic way; poor numeracy remains an elephant in the room.
Does your workforce reflect this national picture?
Our experience is that most business leaders hold the strong belief that their staff have a basic level of ‘number sense’ – that the answer to the UK productivity puzzle is elsewhere – but we have also found that there is a paucity of data to back this up. Some have cited qualifications. However, a quirk within the UK education system is that while it is very effective at generating higher-level qualifications, it is less effective in securing underlying number sense. As an example, we recently surveyed the everyday maths skills of over 700 social science undergraduates across 10 universities – using the National Numeracy Challenge – and found that over three quarters do not have the ‘Essentials of Numeracy’, the rough equivalent of a GCSE pass, even though almost all had recently passed GCSE mathematics.
So, if qualifications don’t count for much then what can you use to check, and if necessary do something about, staff confidence and competence with numbers and data?
National Numeracy have an online tool and an approach to supporting employers that is proving effective in identifying and addressing this issue with the biggest employer in the UK; the NHS. There, we have found that:
- poor numeracy has an impact on patient safety, efficiency, career progression and recruitment across the NHS
- when our approach, which focuses first on addressing ‘maths anxiety’, is embedded into programmes, 100% of staff improve their everyday maths skills and many get the Essentials of Numeracy – without any face-to-face maths teaching; this is a scalable approach
National Numeracy Day is about raising awareness of this hidden issue – and most importantly to generate action to address it. Specifically, we call upon employers to recognise that some of the many millions of adults who struggle with numeracy may be in their own workplace – and that this has a negative impact on business productivity. We invite business leaders to work with us to enable their employees to get the support they need to become numbers people.