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Numeracy in the UK: what's the issue?

Research summary & links to further information about the numeracy issue in the UK.


Low levels of numeracy are a long-term problem for the UK, and poor numeracy is a widespread issue.

The 2011 Skills for Life Survey showed that 17 million adults – that’s half of the working age population – have the numeracy skills expected of primary school children. Around 4 out of 5 adults are working below Level 2 (ie. below C/4 at GCSE).

And the situation is not improving. Comparing 2003 data with 2011 data, literacy skills have improved – but numeracy skills have got worse. And the OECD’s data from 2016 tells the same story again: 50% of England’s population are at Entry Level 3 or below.

It’s clear that school maths is not delivering numerate adults. Even achieving a pass at GCSE is not a guarantee that young adults have the numeracy skills needed for life and work. The Skills for Life survey showed that less than a quarter of 16-24-year-olds who achieved a pass at GCSE maths demonstrate the same level of functional numeracy.

The data that National Numeracy has collected from working with employees in the health & social care sector over the last few years supports these findings. The proportion of employees working at Level 2 and at primary school levels broadly reflects the Skills for Life data. Skills for Health’s 2017 report for Health Education England ‘Beyond the Brand’ also highlights these issues.

For individuals, high numeracy skills are connected to better health and wellbeing, employment, and higher wages. The issue also affects the UK economy, with research suggesting that low levels of numeracy cost the UK £20 billion a year.


Links to more information on the numeracy issue

A simple overview of the issue from National Numeracy: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/what-issue

A summary of the 2011 Skills for Life survey (including a link to the full report): https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/research-skills-life-survey-2011

Full results from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills, 2016: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/skills-matter_9789264258051-en

This report from Skills for Health highlights the issue and summarises some of the evidence of poor numeracy in the health and social care sector: https://haso.skillsforhealth.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2019.03.29-SfH-Beyond-the-Brand-report.pdf

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compares skills in different countries – this gives a summary of the 2014 findings: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/research-pisa-programme-international-student-assessment-2014

A summary of the report from Pro Bono Economics about the cost of poor numeracy to the UK: https://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk/cost-outcomes-associated-low-levels-adult-numeracy-uk-2014