What about maths? How many school children leave school innumerate?

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The threshold level for functional numeracy is Entry Level 3 (which is actually lower than Level One). Anyone who reaches Entry Level 3 in mathematics has just enough numerical skills to cope with everyday life. Level One is achieved by any school pupil who gains a GCSE grade G in mathematics. So how many school leavers failed to gain a GCSE grade G in Maths in 2012? The answer is 1.8%.  And some of these could still be at Entry Level 3 – the threshold level for functional numeracy.

But there will be some 16 year-olds who were not entered for GCSE Mathematics. According to Skills for Life, “51,000 pupils (around 8%) left school without Level 1 in Mathematics in 2006/7.”  But a later Skills for Life (2011) found that 27% of 16-18 year-olds were functionally innumerate in numeracy tests taken after leaving school.  Skills for Life 2011 expressed concern about possible loss of skill between gaining GCSE and being tested for numeracy at a later date.  No reasons were given but they could include such things as GCSE Maths covering the full range of Mathematics (geometry and algebra as well as numeracy) or that pupils had been drilled to pass GCSE but lacked deep knowledge*.

A Sheffield University study in 2010 said about 22% of 16-19 year-olds had insufficient numeracy skills for full participation in today’s society.  However, it went on to say that most young people had functional skills and and “those with the highest skills are up with the best in the world.”

CONCLUSION: The figures for functional innumeracy in 16-19 year-olds vary from 8% (school leavers, published 2007) and 27% (16-18 year-olds taking numeracy tests after leaving school, published 2011)  However, these figures are contradicted by the low proportion (1.8%) of GCSE Maths entrants who failed to achieve a GCSE Grade G.  Of course, not all 16 year-olds would have been entered for GCSE for reasons including illness, insufficient grasp of English, gaps in school attendance and disaffection*.  Nevertheless, the figures for functional innumeracy are a cause for concern.  Skills for Life found that those who stay in school beyond 16 are less likely to be functionally illiterate or innumerate.  The participation age for education and training will soon be 18.  It’s to be hoped that there will be a corresponding fall in the number of school leavers with poor numeracy skills.

That said, it would be wise to heed the warning given at the end of the Sheffield research.  It said comments about functional illiteracy and innumeracy should be made with “due humility” because judgements about necessary skills were made by “experts” and not by people themselves.  The latter may consider that they can function quite well in society even though “experts” think they cannot.


*NOTE: these sentences are opinion.  They are not backed up by any research.  The apparent loss of skill between GCSE and later tests, and the reasons why some pupils don’t take GCSE would be fruitful areas for investigation.

UPDATED 7 June 2013