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Do you struggle with mental arithmetic?

Do you struggle with mental arithmetic?

If you struggle with your mental arithmetic, you’re not alone. poor mathematics is a nationwide problem for many adults and children.

Poor numeracy is a huge and neglected problem. According to the most recent Skills for Life survey, almost 17 million people in the UK have numeracy skills below those needed for the lowest grade at GCSE – for literacy, the comparable figure is five million. Recent studies have also shown that numeracy is a more reliable indicator of disadvantage in life than literacy.

The figure has also risen significantly over the last eight years. The number of adults with the numeracy skills of a primary-school pupil has increased from 15 million to that of 17 million. It now equates to some 49% of all 16- to 65-year-olds – practically half. Chris Humphries is chairman of National Numeracy (, a new charity launched in March, which is the first organisation of its kind to champion the importance of ‘number skills’ for people of all age groups. He said that maths had been steadily downgraded in this country since the 40s and 50s, leading to a decline in the number of both available good maths teachers and of pupils studying the subject at A-level. He said poor maths was a ‘peculiarly British disease’ that fails to blight other parts of the developed world, prompting claims that it was now seriously undermining the country’s international competitiveness.

‘We have 17 million adults whose maths capabilities are – at best – at the age of an 11 year old,’ he said. ‘Now that’s a scary figure because it means they often can’t understand their pay slip; they often can’t calculate or give change; they have problems with timetables; they certainly can have problems with tax and even with interpreting graphs, charts and meters that are necessary for their jobs.’ A National Numeracy survey of some 2,000 adults revealed that eight in 10 adults ‘would feel embarrassed to own up to someone that they were bad at reading and writing’. But only four out of 10 people had the same embarrassment over poor numeracy. Mike Ellicock, the charity’s chief executive, said: ‘We want to challenge this “I can’t do maths attitude” that is prevalent in the UK. It is often a boast or a badge of honour, and that’s across the whole of the social spectrum.’

Kids’ stuff
And it’s not just adults – many children are falling behind in maths at aged 11 and never catching up. And only 15% of them go on to study further maths after the age of 16. Carol Vorderman was, herself, involved in a numeracy study two years ago, carried out for The Conservative Party. ‘The facts are that if a child has not been taught maths well in primary school, there is more than a 90% chance they will fail at GCSE,’ she reports. ‘This means that secondary-school maths lessons make little difference as to where they are ability wise. Almost all primary-school teachers – 96% – gave up maths when they were 16, yet these are the people teaching primary-school children,’ she adds.

Wendy Jones, founding trustee of National Numeracy agrees. ‘Many primary school teachers don’t feel confident because they have not done any maths since they took their GCSE,’ she says. ‘Teachers’ lack of understanding of the subject results in their not teaching it well and this lack of confidence is then passed into the children.’ Another problem is parental attitude. ‘Women in particular lack confidence in their own ability at maths and pass this on to their children,’ says Wendy. ‘So there is an attitude of “I’m no good at maths and that’s why you find it difficult”. ‘This lack of confidence is marked and because it is usually mums who spend the majority of time with the children, this can be quite damaging.

What can I do?
Encourage your children to understand the subject by taking an interest yourself – you might even enjoy it

If you are a parent who does lack confidence in maths, how can you help your own struggling child? ‘An important part is to check your language and attitude to the subject. Saying you were no good and always hated maths will only make your child less willing to learn,’ says Wendy Jones, trustee and founder of National Numeracy. ‘We are also looking to parents to make a commitment not to rubbish maths because it can have a real effect on how their children respond to the subject.’ Interactive maths-related games can help to bring the fun back and online courses can really help children understand, too.

Plans afoot

The main purpose of the National Numeracy charity is to raise awareness of the issues surrounding this subject for both adults and children. Changes need to be made and Wendy says the government is putting this issue high on the agenda. ‘When children are little, they enjoy maths,’ she says. ‘There are practical toys that help them learn numbers and shapes and they get pleasure from it at this stage.‘But something happens when they get to school – the pleasure gets lost and it soon becomes the most hated subject on the timetable. We want this to change,’ she goes on. ‘Ideally we would like to see specialist maths teachers in primary schools, but lack of money means this is unlikely to happen. What can happen is more support and training for primary school teachers. What we also want to see is that maths becomes more of a cross circular subject – English crops up in other subjects and maths is relevant in all sorts of things, too.

‘Teachers have got to be prepared to bring it into other subjects so that it normalises maths and makes it more relevant in a wider spectrum. ‘It’s down to attitude too – some teachers use maths as a punishment and it contributes to the dread many kids have of it as a subject.’ What is going to happen, which was one recommendation from Carol’s report, is that children will soon have to learn maths up the age of 18. ‘Children will have to stay in some form of education or training up to the age of 17 from September, and then from 2015 the leaving age will be 18,’ says Wendy. ‘But if children are forced to continue with maths and it is more of the same, then it will not work. It will need a different approach to engage the ones who have not succeeded in their maths GCSE.’

Carol says…
‘Numeracy should start when children are very young. They should play with numbers constantly and parents can help with this in the early years.’

Tools to aid learning

You’re not on your own when it comes to teaching your children, there are many helpful facilities

Maths Boost: If your primary school aged children are finding it hard to get their head around maths, whether that’s the basics or more complicated algebra and problem-solving, then they can link in with Carol Vorderman via video, on her interactive maths tuition website The Maths Factor ( The site uses games and tools to combine traditional ways of learning with the best of the new methods of teaching, for children aged between four and 12. Some 10,000 children have already signed up to the site and are mastering arithmetic, times tables and algebra and showing dramatic improvements in their children’s mathematical ability. You can sign up for a monthly subscription or buy one-off products like the Times Table School, which is a fun and effective way to help your child learn their times tables up to 12×12, with Carol herself sharing all her hints, tips and tricks.

The Right Tools: The TI-Inspire CX Handheld Graphic Calculator (£74.95, is a calculator with
a difference. It can show graphs, equations, data and verbal explanations. Images can be imported onto the backlit screen, bringing concepts to light and making learning interactive and relevant for youngsters. The makers of the TI-Inspire CX Handheld, also produce the TI-84 Plus C Silver Edition Graphing Calculator (£65.95, which comes with a USB cable for plenty of memory and storage. It also comes with preloaded software including a periodic table for easy learning. One of the best features on the graphing calculator is the pre-installed app, App4Math, which enables students to enter the maths question in the
same way it appears in a textbook – helping to reinforce maths notation, and create more visual understanding of this sort of problem.

Online Learning: iTutorMaths ( gives GCSE students the chance to see, speak to and hear a tutor online giving them the one-on-one interaction that will help boost grades. From £15 an hour, students can get expert maths tuition and their progress is tracked and reported throughout the course. Ninety per cent of users have improved their results, while 100% have achieved A*-C grades. There are six and 10 lesson courses available to join in on. All your child will need is an internet connection, and a headset so they can interact remotely with their tutor.

Fun Activities: Numicon At Home Kit ( provides lots of fun maths-related activities for pre-school age, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 aged children (each kit gets more advanced as the child progresses). The kits help them to grasp different maths concepts and make connections with numbers without the grind. There is also a supporting CD with songs that bring numbers to life, as well as practical games and guidance to make numbers enjoyable.

Picture: Shutterstock

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