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How to improve the nation's numeracy

On 17 May let's focus on 17 year olds

As the UK celebrates National Numeracy Day  (17th May), I’m reminded of a statistic that is often quoted from a Skills for Life survey in 2018. 

According to that study, about half of the UK’s working age adult population has numeracy skills roughly equivalent to those expected of an 11 year old leaving primary school.

It’s a staggering statistic.  But it makes me wonder – what about eleven year olds themselves?  Do most of THEM have the numeracy expected of an eleven year old, and if so, does this mean people actually get worse at numeracy during secondary school?  Actually, I think that the answer for many teenagers is ‘yes’.

Numeracy is more than just arithmetic, but the ability to do basic calculations is an essential part of it.  I often ask sixth form A level mathematicians if their ability to do times tables (“what’s 7x8?”) has improved, got worse or stayed the same since they were at primary school.  I reckon that at least 40% of them say it has got worse, the main reason being that they just don’t get any practice, and so the skill has got rusty. 

If strong mathematicians reach for a calculator when they encounter 7x8, or can't remember how to deduct VAT from the price of a phone, what hope is there for numeracy for everyone else?

So it seems to me that we need to find a way to keep school pupils engaged with essential numeracy skills beyond the age of 16*.

With my tongue only slightly in my cheek, here are three suggestions for how to do this.

  1. Put a dartboard in every sixth form common room.  Introduce a knockout tournament for Year 12 (Lower sixth) students who don’t have looming A level exams to worry about.  It's a great way of casually reinforcing numeracy skills.**
  2. Numeracy games on Radio 1 (etc).  Instead of endless pop quizzes, radio stations should mix it up and occasionally host a fun mental maths challenge. There could be a leaderboard for the top-performing guests (in the same way that Top Gear used to have a celebrity leaderboard for fastest laps).  Politicians should be invited to take part.  Of course most would refuse, but kudos to any who accepted the challenge.
  3. An UCAS points incentive. Introduce a numeracy test in Year 13 that is worth 5 UCAS points if you pass it, no strings attached. That’s roughly the equivalent of adding one grade at A level (eg moving a ‘C’ up to a ‘B’).  It would be basic life-skill stuff:  percentages, comparing deals, ratios. simple statistics. Maybe a 45 minute test, with a calculator and non-calculator section.  No grades, no penalty if you fail, resits allowed. Universities would need to back it, of course.  If nothing else, it would mean that every 17/18 year old had been reminded of how to figure out a percentage just before they leave the school system.  And isn’t that what we want?

*   See also my separate blog about the excellent ‘Core Maths’ qualification.

** Velcro and magnetic darts are available for the health-and-safety conscious.