National Numeracy @ Nationwide


Well- being a physicist in a forum for National Numeracy is illuminating. Physicists come pre-loaded with maths A-Level, often Further Maths A-Level (or as my medic brother calls it, ‘extra hard maths’) and for the early parts of our degrees, our numeric literacy far outshines or scientific literacy. The National Numeracy forum exists to prepare the general public for the mathematical requirements of ‘normal jobs’, skilled apprenticeships and everyday life. The first part of the forum is a working group on the Functional Skills qualification, something I didn’t even know existed before setting foot in Nationwide this morning. Apprenticeships require completion of these qualifications, which compared to GCSEs dedicate more time to applications, and contain 45-hours of taught content (compared to GCSE Maths’ 120 hours).  Today we’re discussing what people need from Functional Skills for life and work and the suggested teaching time and platform. On our somewhat randomly assigned tables, those at the back with me are either late or camera shy, we’re tasked three main topics of conversation:

  • What is the purpose of these skills, and what is their audience?
  • What do employers need of young people?
  • How can we effectively assess Functional Skills?

From my higher education bubble I’d say that there is limited awareness of the qualification at all, but beyond that there is questioning about whether they are fit for purpose. SPOILER! In a similar way to this national review of numerical capability, Gatsby are assessing work experience and the skills required for young people entering the workplace.

So why are we here at all? In an OECD report the UK came 23rd out of 23 developed nations for literacy and 22nd for numerical skills. The crucial finding was we are in the same position whether you tested under 16s or over 65s: our education system does nothing to improve the numerical capital of our generation. There is really good discussion on our table (although we don’t answer all of the questions an extend way into our lavish Nationwide Lunch).

  • Whilst the content and flexibility of the course is more appropriate for the current generation (some enjoy it so much they don’t realise they’re doing it), the delivery of the qualification (the 45 hours of mandatory teaching) isn’t wow-ing the classrooms of today.
  • What makes Functional Skills approachable to those who have failed GCSE Maths 8 or 9 times is the word, ‘functional’- removing the stigma and scariness associated with a GCSE. The program is for those who have been failed by the system.
  • The attractiveness for the employers is almost totally the flexibility- apprenticeships are open to applications 364 days a year and the roll-on, roll-off nature is particularly appealing to young people
  • The majority of young people can do maths- they just break into a cold sweat when you ask them to do it. The confidence boost from actually passing a qualification is worth its weight in gold, as is the ability to tailor the program to individual learners.
  • If we made it GCSE Maths or GCSE Functional Skills, we’d have the double/triple science dilemma: there would be a mismatch in esteem between the ‘elite’ GCSE candidates and the inadequate little brother of FS.
  • When a job advert says “GCSEs or equivalent…”, what does equivalent actually mean? If we’re modernising the qualification, can we modernise the employers? Just how progressive are the businesses of 2016?
  • Alongside confidence, we should be teaching skills in problem solving, estimation, ‘working-out’ and mental arithmetic
  • It doesn’t help if Nicky Morgan and the government preach GCSEs as being the gold standard
  • Could we create a Maths Driving Test (theory/ practical): GCSE plus Functional Skills?

As you can probably tell from my jotting down every word, I was really fascinated to be part of the National Numeracy Forum. Over lunch I discussed a 2014 initiative placing 30 3D printers in secondary schools, looking to increase the DT capacity of my generation. Did it work? Unsurprisingly not- with no follow up and no educating teachers in the joys of computer aided design (CAD), the program got left behind (and only picked up by sensational schools like Simon Langton Grammar and Bury St Edmunds County Upper). I spoke to a teacher of the Maths PGCE at Manchester Metropolitan who said that it wasn’t the classrooms that was putting her young teachers off put the consistent consistent inspection and assessment.

There was a brilliant talk by David Spiegelhalter, the media darling of statisticians, a mathematician from Cambridge who knows a thing or two about numbers. He has some sensational examples of how we’ve got interpreting numbers wrong:

  • August 2014: 99 % of young people in London don’t commit a violent crime– so how many do? Well, if you work it out- 9,000,000 population of London » 1,000,000 young people » 10,000 violent young people- much less pallitable!
  • May 2015: The big debate about hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer was all down to the numbers being presented: 20/100 looks much bigger than 2/10.
  • October 2015: Processed meats do cause cancer – WHO “an increased risk of 18 %”. Why not try some real numbers? Cancer Research UK say 6 % of people get bowl cancer (that’s 6/100). If there’s an increased risk of 18 %, that means instead 7/100 will get brown cancer
  • Feb 2016: The ONS report saying UK unemployment still at 10 year-low, falling by 60,000 correct to ± 79,000

Later this year Spiegelhalter’s book, ‘Teaching Probability’, will educate the educators and general public in real ways to digest the numbers we’re presented with by the press. Information leaflets are designed for those with low numeric literacy, but they’re often less interested in shared-care or informed choices. To this willing audience, journalists are trying to sell papers- and story telling works a lot better using words like ‘causes’ vs. ‘links’. We’re a generation of people with a ‘numbers fetish’ who favour effortless over effortful thinking and don’t trust ourselves to make estimates.

There’s another brilliant talk by Hetan Shah from the Royal Statistical Society (RSS), who speaks about the low levels of statistical competence amongst the highly confidence members of government- 40 % of them got a basic stats problem on coin flipping wrong. What did he do about it?

We also heard from the pharma-sector; where not only are reported statistics carefully selected but they’re only published if they are a positive result. Pharma-reports use a lot of meta-analysis: pooling lots of stories for the results you want, irrespective of the sample size or process of measurement. They inherently suffer from selection biases, where small samples aren’t weighted appropriately and totally ignored if they don’t come up with the correct answer.

There’s an incredibly eloquent point from Baz at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, who says people don’t care because they don’t engage with numbers. To the majority of the UK population science is either portrayed as ‘ridiculous’ (think Tim Peake’s £1 million glove) or incomprehensible (see: Gravitational Waves).

It’s not all doom-and-gloom- we have got an office for national statistics that we can trust, unlike the majority of the world. Whilst we’ve got to be incredibly sensible around terms like ‘improving people’, we can teach ourselves to be more interested in Rosling’s Factfulness: why are they telling me this? Who is telling me this? What are they telling me?

The day draws to a close with updates from National Numeracy Forum members:

  • Maths Mums & Dads a book for mums, dads and grandparents who want to help their primary school children or grandchildren with maths.
  • Core Maths, a Level 3 Maths exam, was created for the majority of those who leave GCSE maths with the only reward they’ll never study maths again- a post 16 qualification
  • The BBC’s new Learning website and up-and-coming BBC Teach Channel
  • The Fair Education Alliance are summarising how children from different socioeconomic backgrounds compare
  • Citizen Maths a free Level 2 online maths exam
  • 3-out-of-5 challenge for offenders: increasing the mathematical capacity in prisons- a 5-topic selection of motivational activities which involve the use of maths to be widely promoted throughout prisons. Topics will relate to learners’ lives, experiences and ambitions and are likely to include activities related to personal and vocational contexts.
  • National Numeracy Challenge with a particular emphasis of health care assistants. Low confidence in maths makes people (and HCAs) super anxious.

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