Basic numeracy skills play a critical role in our day-to-day lives at home and in the workplace. Research has shown that people with lower numeracy skills are more likely to earn less, are at higher risk of unemployment and are even more likely to experience worse health outcomes. Despite the importance of numeracy skills, data suggests that UK is behind the average for the OECD.

That leaves a significant proportion of the UK population without the skills essential for navigating modern life, and with a reduced earning potential. We estimate that the 16 million workers in the UK with low numeracy skills are currently earning an average of nearly £1,600 less per year than they could if they had a basic level of numeracy.

The Covid pandemic has shone a harsh light on the UK’s weakness in this area. The impact of the economic crisis has been disproportionately felt by those with low numeracy skills. Though people with low numeracy skills made up 52% of the workforce prior to the pandemic, our analysis suggests that 59% of those who have lost their jobs so far in the crisis have low numeracy skills – the equivalent of around 560,000 people.

In the aftermath of the crisis, there is an opportunity to pivot the structure of the UK economy further towards higher skill, higher growth sectors. If the right investments in numeracy skills are made, it could both support those who have lost jobs back into employment and provide the foundations for a stronger path for future growth.

Improving numeracy skills could also play a valuable part in the government’s levelling up agenda. Numeracy skills are not evenly distributed across the regions and nations of the UK. The North East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber, for example, all have a higher proportion of working age adults with low numeracy skills than the rest of the UK. Our findings suggest that 3.7 million workers in these regions with low numeracy skills experience an income differential that could be as much as £1,700 per person each year.

With the Covid crisis and its impacts on our economy evident and plans to level up the economy through the recovery becoming real, the need for a national debate on numeracy is now an urgent one. 

All parts of UK society have a role to play in improving adult numeracy skills.

  • Government – working with learning providers, local businesses and charities such as National Numeracy – should consider how number confidence and basic skills development can be integrated into the support provided to out-of-work individuals to help them access the jobs and opportunities that will be available during the economic recovery. There should be a particular focus on low wage areas as a potential lever to support the levelling-up agenda.
  • Business can help to build the skills necessary for a resilient and adaptable workforce, both for their own staff and the communities they operate in. This will help them to remain competitive within a changing economy and support social mobility more broadly.
  • Individuals with low numeracy should consider accessing opportunities to develop their number confidence and numeracy skills to thrive within an ever-changing global economy.

If all parts of society can get behind improving adult numeracy in the UK, the benefits would be manifold. For individuals, it would support them to find employment, earn higher wages and lead healthier lives. But it could also support the government’s efforts both to level up the whole of the country by increasing wages in the regions, and to make the UK economy match-fit to lead the way in the industries of the future.

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14 April 2021