Maths is high on the current political agenda, with a focus on the young. But a lack of basic numeracy is blighting the lives of millions of adults, writes Ann Marie Spry, Vice Principal of Adults at Luminate Education Group.
Numeracy, the ability to understand how maths works in the real world, influences most aspects of our lives – from budgeting for shopping to mortgage choices.
Yet a shockingly high proportion of adults in the UK really struggle to deal with numbers – with a 2022 report finding that, in West Yorkshire, more than half – 52% – had numeracy skills at ‘entry level and below’.
This problem is limiting countless people’s lives, not least by closing off work opportunities across all kinds of sectors. Because a grasp of basic maths, as part of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skill set, is vital to so many jobs – and not just the ‘usual suspects’ like finance, accountancy or computing.
Our numeracy woes are also causing real economic damage which, according to research by National Numeracy, could be costing the UK up to £25 billion a year. A new YouGov survey commissioned by the same charity found that there are currently 15 million people in the UK with ‘low skills or confidence’ in maths – with lower paid workers, the unemployed and part-time workers worst affected.
So how do we go about reaching, and helping, those who need it?
The benefits of a functional approach
That is a question that the government’s Multiply programme, which invests in courses for adults that focus on functional, rather than theoretical, maths was set up to help answer. The scheme involves working with educational and skills organisations, like ours, to boost people’s confidence with numbers and gain qualifications.
We were delighted earlier this year to be awarded nearly £480,000 for two of our group’s members, Leeds City College (which was awarded £434,000) and Keighley College (£45,500), to deliver Multiply training in West Yorkshire.
This funding is enabling us to put on new courses for adults that are tailored to fit around their busy lives, while training more staff to teach numeracy.
These sessions are concentrating on topics like banking, borrowing and interest levels to highlight the practical benefits of numerical skills, and targeting adults who don’t have a Level 2 qualification – roughly equivalent to a GCSE grade 4, or the old C grade – in maths.
We hope that through delivering the programme we can help adults in all walks of life develop improved financial skills: from planning their meals, or creating shopping lists and budgets, to understanding taxes, pensions and interest rates. This should help them to feel more secure as they plan for the future by enabling them to feel more in control, and give them confidence to explore new challenges.
In a way our aim is to correct a historical wrong, as so many of our young people have left – and are still leaving – school feeling intimidated, and fearful, about numbers. That can have far-reaching, negative consequences throughout life: unless we reach out and try to remedy the problem.
Practical skills for the cost-of-living crisis
Our work is still at an early stage but we know, from other schemes around the country – including in Staffordshire – that Multiply courses are delivering very tangible benefits: not least by empowering individuals to cope with the many challenges that are being thrown up by the cost-of-living crisis, through managing their household budgets, bills and debts, better.
The government has been in the headlines this year for talking, as part of its wider push to update a whole raft of educational qualifications, about the importance of getting everyone to study maths until the age of 18. That idea was referenced again, as part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposals for a new Advanced British Standard, in the November 2023 King’s Speech, which stated that the new qualification would ‘ensure every young person studies some form of English and maths to age 18, raising the floor of attainment’.
That idea, given the link between numeracy and future life prospects, certainly has real merit – though proper funding will be needed to recruit and retain the maths teachers required to deliver it.
But we also, as a nation, have to make sure we don’t forget about the millions of people who have already been through the school system and yet don’t have the skills needed to help them fulfil their potential.
That is why the Multiply scheme, and the work further education providers around the country are doing thanks to its funding, is so important. Too many of our citizens, for far too long, have had to struggle due to a lack of number skills and this is costing them, and our economy, dear.
Whichever way you look at it, that just doesn’t add up.
This thought piece was recently published in The Yorkshire Post.
Curriculum reforms are welcome, but we need to tread carefully to ensure there is a clear pathway for all learners, writes Gemma Simmons-Blench, Deputy CEO Curriculum and Quality at Luminate Education Group.
The government’s reasons for wanting to de-fund dozens of technical qualifications seem reasonable: to, as the Department for Education (DfE) has stated, ‘simplify the system for young people’ and create a ‘ladder up for all’.
We have now got an impressive range of T Levels available which offer an attractive option for those seeking to mix their studies with industry placements. While curriculum reforms are welcomed, worryingly there are some missing replacements for all of the NCFE, BTEC and other applied general courses which are set to be phased out by 2025.
This is one of a number of concerns about the proposals that demand urgent action, nationally. The challenge is to introduce these reforms in a manner that doesn’t disadvantage any students or lead to successful existing pathways into work disappearing.
In this regard, the DfE’s claim* that only unpopular or failing applied general courses, or those that overlap with T Levels, will be defunded (*As quoted in this 29 January 2023 article) deserves scrutiny.
Take the uniformed public services courses that are currently offered by further education (FE) colleges, as a prime example. These help students – often with very few qualifications – to develop the skills they need to progress and pursue a career in the police, fire service, army, prison service or ambulance service. All crucial sectors for our society, but all facing challenges in terms of recruiting or retaining staff and ensuring their workforces are sufficiently diverse.
Undermining social mobility
These courses, running from Level 1 to 3, provide a unique pathway for young people for whom a direct route into A levels – or indeed, T Levels, and their five GCSE entry requirement – is simply not available. And there is strong demand for them; at one of our group’s FE providers, Leeds City College, we currently have around 350, 16-18 year old students who want to join a uniformed service.
We also have some 40 adults who came to us to acquire the 80 UCAS points they need, through achieving a Level 3 qualification, to go on and join the police through Leeds Trinity University’s Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship, which is funded by the West Yorkshire Police apprenticeship levy.
The government’s planned reforms, however, provide no direct alternative qualification for learners who want to work in the uniformed services. Instead, the DfE has made arrangements so colleges can apply for funding to run, from 2026, a ‘small Alternative Academic Qualification (AAQ)’ in place of their existing course.
The expectation will be for these small AAQs to be studied in combination with two A levels, which will make this new pathway much less attractive – and in some cases, inaccessible – to many. This change would restrict choice and, nationally, lead to a significant reduction in the number of people attempting to join our uniformed services.
That would represent a disastrous blow for social mobility.
Delivering a diverse workforce
Our uniformed services still have a long way to go to ensure their workforces reflect our society. This government report for the police in England and Wales, for example, showed that as of March 2022, white officers made up nearly 92% of the personnel.
In West Yorkshire, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime Alison Lowe described racial diversity last year – when statistics showed that just 7.4% of the force’s officers were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background – as ‘woeful’.
Yet our courses are helping to address these shortcomings. Some 20% of our Level 3 public service students in Leeds last year identified as BAME.
The gender split amongst students is also helping to address the historical imbalance which the police – whose workforce in England and Wales is 66.5% male – still suffers from. At Leeds City College our public services students last year were 60% female.
A diverse and inclusive approach to recruitment also means welcoming applicants from poorer backgrounds, and 40% of our public service students at Leeds City College in 2022 came from some of the country’s most deprived postcode areas.
FE providers are doing the work, now, to create that diverse workforce which our public services have been crying out for – through courses which might soon be gone.
That is one of the reasons why we are, respectfully, asking Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to consider the creation of a public services T Level that will allow colleges to continue meeting the skills needed in these crucial sectors.