We’re all numbers people: driving change on UK numeracy

March 22, 2018

A lack of numeracy skills in adults is having a significant impact on the lives of people across the UK as well as on employers and the economy. Mike Ellicock and Roisin Murphy explore the role of business in addressing this.

The UK is in the midst of a numeracy crisis. This is not just an issue for individuals or the government, but one in which businesses should have a profound interest, as well as responsibility, in solving.

The issue

Nearly half of UK adults have the numeracy levels expected of an 11 year old, which has a significant negative impact on them, on employers and on society overall. Low numeracy levels cost UK employers £3.2bn each year, and it has an estimated total cost to the UK economy of £20bn per year.

There is a gap equivalent to about eight years of maths schooling between the highest and lowest performing students in England. This has serious repercussions later in life: students who fall behind stay behind, which limits life chances, leading to poor outcomes such as exclusion, unemployment and debt. We’ve heard first-hand accounts from people put off from applying for a job or promotion because of the numeracy involved or struggling (often in silence) with decision making at work, and then there was the finding last year that 18 million adults lack the numeracy skills to manage their money well.

Whether you’re an independent retailer or an international financial services company, this is an issue that no business can escape from. Its impacts—be it in the workforce, customer base, or local community—are pervasive, and harmful to employers.

KPMG and National Numeracy are working together to galvanise the business community into action on the UK’s numeracy problem. Businesses can help improve UK numeracy in three main ways.

Changing attitudes towards numeracy

Numeracy isn’t about complex algebra but about applying simple maths in everyday life situations, and using this to make the best decisions. Which phone contract is the best value? What time will I arrive if the train takes 45 minutes? How much do I owe if we’re splitting the bill?

However, there is a very real problem with a culture in which it is acceptable to remark, “I don’t do numbers.” Imagine people casually remarking “I can’t read.” Unthinkable. We need to make a conscious effort to help people understand the importance of numeracy in their lives, and to have the confidence to make the improvements that we know everyone can.

In order to lead this attitudinal shift, we’re launching the UK’s first ever annual National Numeracy Day on 16th May 2018. National Numeracy Day will be an annual celebration of the importance of numbers in everyday life and will help to reframe attitudes to numeracy. It will bring together individuals, employers, educators and supporters from across the UK to help us improve numeracy levels.

Employers have a crucial role in raising awareness of the issue. Working across their supply chain, clients, customers, communities and in their workforce, they can pinpoint where numeracy issues lie, and use their influence with these groups to promote the role of numeracy in everyday life and the fact that it’s possible for anyone to get to grips with it with the right support.  Seeing the value is the first step to improving.

Providing help to improve

What can be done to help people actually improve their number skills? And how we even begin to help the millions of working age adults who need help?

In our joint report ‘The Essentials of Numeracy: A new approach to making the UK Numerate’ we offered an approach based around National Numeracy’s diagnostic and support package.

Based around an easily accessible online tool which has so far helped over 140,000 people to check whether they have the ‘Essentials of Numeracy’ (and provide help to achieve them if they don’t), this is already being used by adults working in private and public sector settings, job seekers and even banking customers.   Three quarters of those who go on to retest their numeracy show an improvement in their level including complete self-confessed ‘maths phobics’.

With enough employers embedding this kind of support into their learning and development offer or encouraging involvement in the National Numeracy Day across their workplace, we could surely support many more thousands of adults to become fully fledged numbers people.

And not forgetting the workforce of the future, this year KPMG will be working with WE Schools to distribute numeracy toolkits to its network of over 3000 schools in the UK. These will include curriculum-matched lesson plans and materials for teachers to explore the theme of numeracy in association with various school subjects; guides with activities and plans for students to take action on numeracy-related causes; and, posters and videos to bring the campaign to life in schools.

Improving the communication of numbers and data

Finally, how should you talk to someone about interest rates, payments, pensions or other complex numerical information if they have the numeracy levels expected of an 11 year old? What if you only have one page or a few bullet points to make your point clearly?

We are calling on organisations to produce numerical information that’s clear, simple, and allows people to understand their options, regardless of their numeracy level. It does not necessarily take sweeping changes to present information so that it matches your reader’s numeracy level yet by re-thinking the way that we communicate we’ll see more confident, satisfied, informed decision making.

We’re all numbers people. We just don’t all realise it yet.

It’s possible to make a step-change on UK numeracy, with concerted action from the business community, government the third sector, and a big dose of positivity we can get there together. If people are confident and competent in using numbers and data, they’re able to make good decisions in their daily life and at work.


Mike Ellicock is the Chief Executive of National Numeracy.

Roisin Murphy is a Corporate Responsibility Senior Manager at KPMG UK.


To find out more about National Numeracy Day, visit https://www.numeracyday.com/.

KPMG in the UK operates from 22 offices across the UK with approximately 14,500 partners and staff. The UK firm recorded a revenue of £2.2 billion in the year ended 30 September 2017. KPMG is a global network of professional firms providing Audit, Tax, and Advisory services. Its corporate responsibility efforts focus on promoting social mobility through numeracy, literacy and lifelong learning.

National Numeracy is an independent charity established in 2012 to help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills. It aims to challenge negative attitudes, influence public policy and offer practical ways of helping adults and children improve their numeracy – in the community, the workplace and formal education.