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Does Numeracy Matter More?

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Author(s): 
Bynner
John
Parsons
Samantha
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy
Institute of Education, University of London
Published: 
2006
Resource Type: 
Research
Number of Pages: 
44
Abstract: 

This study, based on two longitudinal studies in the UK, challenges the assumption that numeracy is less important than literacy for functioning effectively in adult life. Data from the two studies were analyzed, looking at the standards of literacy and numeracy against other aspects of life that indicate economic and social well-being.

Among the conclusions is that, for women, low numeracy has the greater negative effect, even when combined with competent literacy, on employment, social, and psychological outcomes. However, for men, poor numeracy alone does not have a greater negative effect than poor literacy and poor numeracy together. The authors recommend that government policy should target the poor standards of numeracy of the most disadvantaged sections of the female population to counter the risk of social exclusion.

NOTE: In reading this research, it is important to remember that in the educational system in the UK, compulsory education ends at age 16.

What the Experts Say: 

The findings described in this resource are valuable as a motivation for practitioners and students alike to look beyond the immediate goals of their work and study to the long-term effects of competency in both numeracy and literacy.  More specifically, it points to the importance of competent numeracy in the technologically oriented labor market of today.

The report offers encouragement for practitioners and administrators by documenting the fact that increasing the skill levels of adult students does make a difference for their economic, social, and psychological well-being, particularly for women.  It focuses on the impact of increased numeracy skills, often the un-researched component of “literacy and numeracy”. It can also be motivating for adult students who tend to lose sight of the broader purpose of their efforts when “passing the test” is their immediate goal. “When are we going to use this?” can be the opportunity to discuss the effects of learning that are explored in this report.

The report documents the increased marginalization of those who lack basic skills in general and also looks at the effects of poor numeracy in isolation.  The data come from longitudinal studies over many years, so the reader can see the persistent and pervasive influence of poor literacy/numeracy skills throughout one’s lifetime.

Some findings:

With respect to employment at age 30:

  • Men and women with poor numeracy were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy.
  • Men with poor numeracy had the lowest hourly rates of pay.

For women, poor numeracy, independently of the standard of literacy, is more significant.  Those with poor numeracy are:

  • less likely to be in full-time work (regardless of how many children they had)
  • if in work, more likely to be in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs;
  • more likely to have low self-esteem;
  • more likely to feel they lacked control over their lives.

Changes in the nature of employment are suggested to be at the heart of the problem of numeracy for women.  Modern jobs of the kind that appeal to young women, e.g., managing accounts, or using ICT equipment for administration, demand numeracy skills.  The resource demonstrates the importance of technological skills in employment.  This emphasizes the need for competent numeracy skills in an ever-changing workplace.

The article is somewhat difficult to read at times and does contain some slight inconsistencies in reporting results. Its value may be greater to advocates, administrators, and policymakers than to practitioners and learners.

Additional research:

Statistics Canada & OECD (2005). Learning a living: First results of the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. Ottawa and Paris: Statistics Canada and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/89-603-XIE/89-603XIE2005001.htm)

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