by Gabrielle Pickard
12 April 2012. Cheshire, United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has been censured in the media as being a nation of ‘mathematical dummies’, since a survey revealed that 17 million people, that’s nearly half of all working adults in England, have the maths skills of an 11-year-old.
The figures were released by a Skills of Life survey conducted by a new organisation, National Numeracy, which aims to transform the nation’s attitude towards maths. The review questioned 7,000 16- to 65-year-olds in 2011. Although there has not been any reports published about how the maths skills of the survey participants were analysed, in the wake of the survey, it has been reported that a rising proportion of Britain’s working age is incapable of performing even the most basic of sums required for everyday life.
Not only this, but experts are also warning that poor maths skills are worn as a “badge of honour” by too many adults in the UK.
Referring to our seemingly collective incompetence to work out basic sums as a “British disease”, Chris Humphries, chairman of National Numeracy and a former chief executive of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, talked about the ‘inexcusability’ of Britain’s collective mathematical hopelessness.
“It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say: ‘I can’t do maths.’ It is a peculiarly British disease which we aim to eradicate. It doesn’t happen in other parts of the world. With encouragement and good teaching, everyone can improve their numeracy,” Humphries told the BBC.
Asides a survey which effectively surveyed just 7,000 people of working age out of a working age population of 34 million, that’s just a tad over a mere 0.02% of the total working age in Great Britain. Thus belittling us Brits for having a innumeracy “British disease”, the fact we apparently wear our lack of numeracy skills with a “badge of honour”, is a double insult to the British!
Humphries continues to talk about the fact British people’s lack of basic maths skills means that millions are struggling to understand their tax, payslips, timetables or even calculate their change in shops, and as a consequence is ‘blighting the economy and ruining lives’.
“Poor numeracy seriously blights an individual’s life chances. Young people with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be excluded from school, we know adults with poor numeracy are twice as likely to be unemployed,” said Humphries.
41-year-old Claire Evans is one such individual who feels insulted about the lack of numeracy being a “British disease” and that we view our lack of maths talent as being a “badge of honour”. The accounts manager from London said that she struggled to get her Maths GCSE and had to repeat the exam three times in order to gain a Grade C.
“Whilst passing my Maths GSCE didn’t come easy for me at school, I recognised the importance of having it for the future, such as securing a job. I feel insulted by the recent newspaper headlines, such as the one on the Mirror that read, “Sum dummies: Half of adults have the maths skills of an 11-year-old“, Mrs Evans told me.
“For one, my children are working very hard in order to pass their Maths GCSE and for two, those who do struggle with maths on an everyday level, certainly don’t do so with a “badge of honour”. Where they get these pronouncements from I’ll never know!” the mum of two continued.
Talking to the BBC, Humphries blamed poor numeracy in Britain on deep-rooted cultural reasons, and that, since the Second World War, there has been a focus on arts and social sciences in schools.
“With encouragement and good teaching, everyone can improve their numeracy,” Humphries insists.
In order to shed some much needed light on the contentious subject, I spoke to Lucy Wilby, a secondary school Maths teacher in Cheshire, who objects to the chairman of National Numeracy’s claims that schools are to blame for our lack of numeracy, for focusing too much on the arts and social sciences.
“Maths is high on the agenda in schools. Pupils have more Maths lessons (with English and Science) than anything else. Numeracy is still massive in primary schools too with numeracy hour taking place every day,” said Mrs Wilby.
“Getting a C in Maths is paramount especially because of league tables. Schools are judged on % 5 A* to C grades per pupil but also now they are judged % 5 A* to C grades including English and Maths. If pupils are not on target, schools employ outside tutors to provide 1:1 tuition for Maths throughout the school day for further intervention and support,” continued the Maths teacher.
Reiterating the belief that there is a high value placed on teaching maths in schools in the UK, Mary Simmons, headteacher in a primary school in Manchester, said:
“In primary schools numeracy and literacy have had a high status for many years now. Some would argue the balance in primary schools swung too much to Maths and English, marginalising the other subjects that have always been needed for a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum.”
Disputing further Humphries’ insistence that Britain’s lack of numeracy is a ‘deep-rooted consequence of schools gaining greater focus on the arts, the head teacher continued:
“A huge amount of government money has been put into maths and literacy to raise standards in primaries and as a consequence standards have risen.
So, yes, there certainly is adequate emphasis on maths and as a result subjects like arts and drama have been given less status in many schools.”
“It is all about striking the right balance, producing numerate children who have had opportunities to develop their interest in areas such as the ‘Arts’, Mrs Simmons concluded.
As we can see, blaming schools for the alleged ’17 million adults in England that have basic maths skills that are, at best, the same as an 11-year-old’, based on a survey that analysed just 7,000 people, is highly contested amongst teachers in the UK. Not only this, but insisting that the British people wear our lack of numeracy with a “badge of honour” can only be considered as being an out-and-out insult, which is based on absolutely no shred of evidence!
Gabrielle Pickard is a freelance writer based in Cheshire, United Kingdom.