We are all numbers people: celebrating National Numeracy Day

Many people say they don’t need numbers for their job – but I bet they do. It’s all too common to hear “I’m not a numbers person” but numbers play a huge role in everyone’s work and everyday life. 

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Healthcare staff are numbers people when they calculate medication doses, catering staff are numbers people when they measure out ingredients and retail staff are numbers people when they handle cash at the till. 

Despite this, around 17 million adults in England (that’s half the working age population) have the numeracy levels expected of a primary school leaver.  This affects peoples career progression, productivity, safety at work and confidence. 

You might be wondering why we have such a problem with numeracy in the UK? There are many reasons but one which often goes unmentioned is attitudes or culture.

To improve their number skills, the learner must first see the value in maths. Simply, if we don’t think that something is useful, then why would we bother learning it? For some people a love of learning or maths specifically is enough to give them the value they need to engage – for most this isn’t the case. It’s important for the learner to see their own reason for improving, this could be to make a move up the ladder at work, manage their money better, help their children with homework or simply just to prove to themselves that they can. 

They then need to turn “I can’t do maths” into “I can’t do maths yet.” Too many people don’t think they can improve but being good with numbers isn’t a special talent or genetic ability, it’s something we can all learn. Huge numbers of people believe that maths ability is set in stone or that some people are naturally numbers people and others are naturally words people. Believing these myths makes many people not bother trying to improve at all and stops them from fulfilling their potential. 

Finally, learners need to accept the effort involved and more importantly that if they find the learning process is taking a lot of effort, that doesn’t make them bad at maths. Learning is a challenge and finding things difficult is a natural part of the learning process. Mistakes should be viewed as helpful, not off-putting. 

Don’t underestimate the emotion in maths. Many people experience chronic maths anxiety – a negative and debilitating emotional response when faced with numbers. In our work with employers we have seen people overcome this and go from saying they are “terrified” to do a numeracy assessment to saying, “I’m looking forward to getting home to do some more practice” in a short period of time. 

National Numeracy Day seeks to help change both attitudes towards maths and the worryingly low numeracy rates in the UK. It’s all about recognising the importance of numbers and helping people sharpen their skills and build confidence.

Independent charity National Numeracy are encouraging everyone to us the day to check if they have the Essentials of Numeracy – the skills needed for work and everyday life. Anyone can check if they have the Essentials using the charity’s free online tool and work towards improving if they don’t.

Unionlearn are working with National Numeracy as an official champion of the day. Find out more about the campaign on the Numeracy Day website and if you would like more information about how you can get involved contact [email protected]

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Ben Perkins

Ben is Partner Support Coordinator at the independent charity National Numeracy. The charity aims to help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills.

Ben works with employers, unions and other partners to support them in improving numeracy skills amongst their team.