If it is not acceptable to say “I can’t read or write”, why is it okay to proudly wear poor numeracy skills as a badge of honour? 

The consequences of innumeracy – or mathematical illiteracy – has stealthily infiltrated society and industry for countless generations. As a nation, our general level of competence with numbers is left wanting, though rarely seen as problematic. Many well-educated and knowledgeable people lack confidence with numbers, while we often hear of successful CEOs renowned for their visionary or people-focused talents, rather than numeric prowess. While as individuals we can successfully circumnavigate certain deficiencies, the hidden symptoms caused by our national acceptance of innumeracy creates a multitude of problems.

Innumeracy + Acceptance = ?

The scale of low numeracy skills – defined as those below Level 2 on the UK adult qualifications scale – is at epidemic proportions here in the UK. With roughly four in five adults possessing low levels of numeracy6, its debilitating impact on society and the economy is far-reaching and extensive. For example:

  • Poor numeracy skills have a direct impact on productivity at work, which costs the UK economy an eye-watering £20.2 billion each year.6
  • People with poor numeracy skills are twice as likely to face unemployment.7
  • There is a direct correlation between poor numeracy and lower distribution of wages and poor health.7
  • 25% of young people in custody have a numeracy level below that of a 7-year old.7
  • 65% of adult prisoners have numeracy skills below that of an 11-year old.7

Improving social mobility for disadvantaged young people is paramount. It is statistics like these that drive the team at Sparx to use technology to make a real difference – rather than allowing technology to be the driver of the conversation itself.

The Problem with Maths

Maths faces an identity crisis. Through a mixture of popular misconceptions and a high dose of fair criticism, it is not the easiest subject to teach or learn. Although this is not a new problem and affects society and industry by stealth as illustrated previously, we see it very much as a three-dimensional problem:

  • Difficult – Maths has long been considered a difficult subject to grasp, accessible only to ‘clever people’ and academics in pursuit of lofty professions. Difficulty is a cross-generational perception, which is a deep-rooted ‘truth’ within many extended families. At Sparx, we are all too aware of the fears and concerns that parents have with struggling to support their children with homework, for example.
  • Dry – coupled with difficulty, maths is often considered to be a dry subject to engage with. Large groups of pupils continue to fail to connect with it due to current teaching practices, resources used or the amount of individual support that can be provided.
  • Dispensable – many adults view maths as something they left behind in their past when leaving school. Ever since the early days of the calculator, maths is commonly seen as dispensable, particularly with the growing reliance on technology to supplement any personal deficiencies.

With this in mind, is it any wonder that poor numeracy skills are accepted and undervalued across society?

Making Maths Count

Just as it’s not acceptable to be illiterate, Sparx is working with schools to research and challenge perceptions to help make maths count for millions of learners across the globe over the coming decade.


  1. National Education Union Teacher Workload Survey, March 2018
  2. ‘Retaining and developing the teaching workforce’ – House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, January 2018
  3. ‘State of Education Survey 2017’ – The Key & Ipsos
  4. ‘Education Indicators in Focus – 2012/04 (April)’ – OECD
  5. ‘Provisional GCSE and equivalent results in England, 2017 and 2018’ – DfE / National Statistics
  6. Skills for Life 2011; PIAAC 2014; National Numeracy YouGov Survey 2014
  7. ‘Why is numeracy important?’ – National Numeracy website (January 2019)
  8. ‘Artificial Intelligence: 10 Things To Know’ – InformationWeek, November 2015
  9. Full details on this research at: https://sparx.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Sparx-Case-Study-all_v2.pdf