The high cost of low adult numeracy: revisiting last year's project for National Numeracy

5 October 2015

When the charity National Numeracy decided to launch a new Challenge to show millions of people that they could improve their everyday maths skills there was one problem: the figures that existed to show the costs of poor numeracy, which would be important for the campaign, were out of date and the charity felt that they underplayed the economic impact of low levels of numeracy amongst adults. They turned to Pro Bono Economics to see if their economists could help put a figure on the costs to the individual and the wider economy of poor numeracy.

Wendy Jones from National Numeracy says the idea of free help from experienced economists was immediately appealing:

“Our aim was to persuade people with poor numeracy that they could - and should - improve their skills, but to really get that going we knew we needed a strong campaign. While we talked a great deal about the cost of poor numeracy we didn’t have a figure that really showed that. We also only had four months until we launched so it was great that PBE got on board very quickly and we started to work with them on what we could do and how we could get something that worked and was robust.”

A team from the National Audit Office worked closely with the charity for several months in the lead-up to the launch of the Challenge in March 2014. Wendy Jones says that although they were all under pressure to meet a deadline the team worked very well together:

“It was these two different worlds coming together - economists and an education charity. So it could have been very difficult but both PBE and the economists went out of their way to make the project work. We all understood what each other wanted and we all worked hard to get there together.”

The new research was able to show the damaging impact that poor numeracy was having on the UK economy – estimating the cost of outcomes associated with low levels of adult numeracy at around£20.2 billion per year, or about 1.3 per cent of the UK’s GDP. The figure was used at the launch of the Challenge and helped to attract widespread publicity and media attention. Wendy Jones says this work has helped National Numeracy to challenge negative attitudes, influence public policy and promote effective approaches to improving numeracy.

“It has become a figure that everyone uses, including our funders and partners. Nowadays everyone wants things quantified and having a robust figure like this helps us to tell our story in a compelling way. It also complements the stories of the people who struggle with poor numeracy and we use it a lot.”

Michael Kell from the National Audit office says projects like the one with National Numeracy have also had an important impact on their economists:

“Working with charities through PBE has had a really positive impact on the team here. Not only do they get the opportunity to work on some really interesting projects but they also develop their own skills because they get the chance to step up and take the lead.”

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