Why numeracy matters header image

We speak to the charity National Numeracy about what numeracy is and how we can improve it.


From working out how much you’re saving in a 70% sale to following a recipe, cashing up a till to measuring out a dose of medicine, numerical skills are key to how we live, work and manage our money. That’s why the charity National Numeracy is on a mission to improve numeracy levels across the UK, which are currently significantly below the average for countries in Europe.

“Numeracy is about being able to understand and work with numbers in everyday life,” says Sam Sims, CEO of National Numeracy. “It’s about having the confidence and skills to choose and use the right pieces of maths for a task in the workplace or money management.” Sam joined National Numeracy after many years working for education charities.

How does numeracy fit into our everyday lives?

Sam says: “When we’re working with time - planning journeys, making appointments, understanding rotas - that’s an example of numeracy. So is anything to do with money - understanding bills, seeking out the best deals in a shop or online, checking our payslips and deciding whether we can afford something.”

Sam Sims, CEO of National Numeracy
Sam Sims, CEO of National Numeracy

“Every single job involves numeracy to some extent. Nurses and healthcare professionals need to be able to understand doses, construction workers need to calculate measurements, office workers need to be confident looking at a budget.”

Numeracy is also the foundation we need for better money management. “If a household budgeting tool involves a spreadsheet and you’re not comfortable with that, that may become a barrier to developing your budgeting skills,” he says.

At Starling, we want to take away some of the stress of managing your everyday finances by giving you a clear overview of your money. For example, with Spending Insights the app breaks down your spending into categories (holidays, entertainment, transport) and merchants (Boots, Netflix, Tesco). That way, you can see quickly and easily where you could make a change to your spending habits. We also send you real-time notifications when money goes into your account, or leaves.

How can we improve numeracy?

One way National Numeracy acts to improve numeracy is through the National Numeracy Challenge, a free online tool with questions and explanations around basic numeracy.

“The Challenge is designed by adults for adults and you can work in your own time, on your own terms in a safe environment - not under exam conditions or in a classroom,” says Sam.

You can download a certificate that shows your current numeracy level based on the Challenge results, which you can reference on your CV. “Many employers already recognise and value these certificates, especially in healthcare professions.”

The Challenge is a key focus of the annual National Numeracy Day (19th May 2021), a day of activities and events to promote confidence around numbers and money management for adults and children, supported by celebrities and financial experts such as Martin Lewis. So far, more than 1,300 schools have signed up to take part.

Children and adult playing board game
National Numeracy engages with both children and adults

To improve numeracy, the charity advocates embedding the National Numeracy Challenge into adult education, and government employment and skills-building programmes. Lots of local authorities already offer free numeracy support, and these schemes are welcomed by National Numeracy.

The charity also calls for a collective effort to improve the numeracy of the workforce and new employees. Part of this involves tackling misconceptions that hold people back. Sam says: “There’s no such thing as a ‘maths gene’. With practice, everyone can get better.”

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