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Adult numeracy and the low-skilled: the challenge of engagement and improving skills

EPALE's thematic expert on Learner Support Ian Atkinson reflects on the challenges of teaching numeracy to low-skilled adults

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What is the issue?

According to the 2013 OECD PIAAC survey, nearly one in four adults in the EU are at or below Level 1 in numeracy on the five-point scale used for comparison. This suggests that a large number of adults across the EU can reasonably be described as having low numeracy skills. This is an issue for those individuals themselves, in terms of access to work opportunities and in their everyday life, and for an economy that is increasingly dependent on higher level skills to support competitiveness. As the European Commission has recognised, this situation puts the least-skilled adults in a ‘low-skills trap’ and reinforces the importance of encouraging those who have left formal education to return to learning. However, engaging low-skilled adults in developing their numeracy skills can be extremely challenging. What follows explores some of the reasons for this, and considers what might be needed to encourage engagement and numeracy development amongst low-skilled adults.


What are the barriers?

Research indicates that there is a wide range of barriers to adults in general, and low-skilled adults in particular, engaging in adult learning to improve their numeracy. However, certain common barriers are frequently discussed and these can be said to fall into three main areas:

  • Cultural factors, including beliefs and attitudes that numeracy is not important or was something ‘you did at school’ but is not relevant to individuals’ experience of the adult world.
  • Individual or psychological factors including nervousness and a lack of confidence possibly relating to prior negative experiences (whether from the workplace or stretching back to individuals’ time at school).
  • Structural factors including lack of access to learning opportunities, whether in terms of a lack of local provision or for other reasons such as a lack of subsidy/affordability to take courses.

The question then becomes how to effectively tackle these barriers. This is a complex issue with no easy solutions, but one way into this is to think about what elements can be built on to encourage engagement and the development of numeracy skills. While structural considerations will vary, and relate to the capacity and political will of Member States to address them, cultural and individual/psychological factors are perhaps more universal and easier to consider in this context.


What can be done?

First and foremost, any approaches aimed at encouraging those with low numeracy levels to engage in learning are likely to depend on reflecting individuals’ everyday lived experience – in other words, encouraging participation on the basis of helping people with day-to-day life, whether at home or in the workplace. To encourage greater participation in addressing numeracy issues, people need to see a clear value in this or a need for them to do so.

Encouraging engagement also needs to focus on breaking down some of the barriers highlighted and, in particular, building confidence. Many approaches here involve reinforcing the fact that adults are using numeracy or ‘doing maths’ in their everyday lives without recognising it as such, particularly as in many people’s minds mathematics is linked to the more formal elements of the subject they did in school. This recognition can also support a gradual development of a cultural context where numeracy is recognised as important and widely valued.

Common ‘hooks’ for engagement and developing numeracy skills that reflect this focus on everyday lived experience, and fit the approach of building confidence through encouraging individuals to recognise what they can already do, might include for example:

  • Doing the grocery shopping and having to compare different goods to work out which is the best value
  • Parents helping and supporting their children in maths homework and assignments
  • Sports and games – for example where adding or subtraction is needed as part of the activity

The workplace is another key location for engagement, whether to develop skills for particular purposes, or as a route to adult learning opportunities through, for example, trade unions or workers’ educational organisations. Encouraging engagement through such routes might focus on stressing the potential, or necessity, for improved numeracy to support progression.

While the complexity and Member State-specific nature of structural barriers means most are beyond the scope of this discussion, approaches to addressing a lack of access might be addressed in part by building on new technological opportunities. Online learning, for example, can address issues of access and a lack of local provision (accepting that more direct support may be needed in some cases), may be suited to those with less confidence who are keen to work at their own pace, and can potentially enable more flexible and engaging forms of learning.


What else is happening and what are your views?

While the above discussion offers some broad suggestions for tackling low numeracy rates among the low skilled, it can only touch on some of the issues and possible solutions. It would be good to hear other ideas around what the issues and barriers are, and how they can be tackled, along with any examples of promising practice in this area from the EPALE community.


Ian Atkinson is Associate Director at Ecorys UK, where he leads on employment and labour markets policy and research work. His research background and interests include employability interventions, social inclusion and results-based payment mechanisms.

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