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Buried or not? What’s happened to numeracy?

International surveys reveal a worrying decline in adult numeracy development. Dave Tout makes the case for a renewed focus.

Although there has been much talk and action based around the concept of ‘built in, not bolted on’ for language, literacy and numeracy (LLN) in vocational education and training in Australia, there is some evidence to suggest that the ‘N’ is well and truly buried.

Consider, for example, what we know about numeracy proficiency of adults in Australia. Do we have a problem or not; are our workers and citizens well equipped in this regard? We have now had a number of surveys of the literacy and numeracy proficiency of Australian adults, including the latest international survey, the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey, released late last year.

Adult literacy and numeracy

The Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted this household survey around Australia, interviewing a nationally representative sample aged from 15 to 74 years. There are five levels in PIAAC literacy and numeracy, from ‘Level 1’ up to ‘Level 5.’ Due to the relatively large numbers of adults at the lower end, PIAAC includes an additional ‘Below Level 1.’

Across Australia, PIAAC shows that 22 per cent of 15- to 74-year olds performed at Level 1 or below in numeracy, increasing to 54 per cent, or more than nine million adults, if you include Level 2. Australia’s numeracy achievement was just below the international mean, ranked 13th out of 23 countries. In contrast, Australia ranked fourth in literacy, achieving significantly above the mean. In terms of gender, around 10 per cent more females than males performed at the lower two levels in numeracy, while the gender difference in literacy was much more balanced.

And how has our performance changed over the years? Since the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS), our performance in numeracy has declined, not improved. Based on readjusted figures for ALLS, the percentage of adult Australians performing at or below Level 2 in numeracy increased from 2006 to 2012, while there has been a small improvement in literacy.

These results are consistent with the equivalent international survey of 15-year olds in schools, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in which Australia also performs better in literacy than in numeracy. The worrying result is that Australia’s performance in PISA has significantly declined since 2000 in both literacy and numeracy.

Numeracy for the 21st century

The results, no matter how you read them, demonstrate that a significant number of Australians aged 15 years and upwards do not have access to sufficient numeracy and mathematical skills to cope equitably with life in the 21st century. The capacity to make informed decisions – in the workplace or when out shopping, following instructions about a medical or health matter, making decisions about financial matters, or understanding the implications of, say, gambling – all require good numeracy skills. The results of these surveys show that millions of Australians do not have such foundational numeracy skills and are, potentially, disempowered.

Does this all matter? Do people need numeracy in their lives? There is plenty of evidence to show the value and importance of investing in numeracy. An ongoing longitudinal study in the United Kingdom by John Bynner and Samantha Parsons has found that numeracy appears to be a stronger influence than literacy, in both economic and social terms. Bynner and Parsons found that people without numeracy skills suffered worse disadvantage in employment than those with poor literacy skills alone, and that for women, while the impact of low literacy and low numeracy is substantial, low numeracy has the greatest negative effect, even when combined with competent literacy.

...people without numeracy skills suffered worse disadvantage in employment than those with poor literacy skills alone.

In other research, Celia Hoyles in the UK argues that owing to globalisation and the introduction of technology, workplace numeracy demands are growing rapidly and more workers are now engaged in maths-related tasks of increasing sophistication. In analysing the data from PIAAC, similar results appear. Adults with high proficiencies in literacy and numeracy are much more likely, compared to those with lower skills, to report good health, to be employed, to have higher earnings, and to have positive social dispositions and take part in community life. And numeracy appears to be a more potent predictor of social and economic outcomes such as health, employment, and higher salary, compared to literacy.

It would appear from the research that there is sufficient evidence to show that we should not ignore the N in LLN, that the skill levels of our youth and adults are not very good, and that we are going backwards, not forwards. Why is that the case, given the emphasis given to LLN and Foundation Skills over the years since the ALLS results grabbed the attention of government and industry, and since various actions have been implemented?

Addressing students’ numeracy needs

One issue is the numeracy capability of the vocational education and training (VET) workforce, including the LLN workforce. Tina Berghella’s report, ‘Seeking the N in LLN,’  documents serious skills shortages of trainers with a mathematics/numeracy background and skills in the VET sector workforce, at least as it applies to LLN support and related programs. There is evidence of practitioner fear and lack of confidence in the face of students’ numeracy needs.

Another related issue is that literacy is seen as culturally more important than numeracy. Who puts their hands up to say that they can’t read and write? Not many, yet it is quite commonplace, and even acceptable, to admit that you are no good at maths.

What is the solution? There is ample evidence to show that numeracy is crucial if younger and older people are to be fully involved in society, including in the workplace. The evidence also shows that we are not making any progress in improving the numeracy skills of the Australian population.

While this is a complex issue, and there is no quick or easy solution, a good first step would be to explicitly target and prioritise numeracy, for example, by training many more personnel in numeracy, including via the national Foundation Skills scholarships program, but also by making numeracy a priority in workplace LLN programs, in resource development. We need to target adult numeracy and maths programs to women – learners and workers, but also educators. We need more research about the teaching and learning of numeracy, and we need to be proactive in monitoring how well and how comprehensively we are supporting and upskilling the numeracy and maths capabilities of our young people and adults in relevant and meaningful ways. ■
RD

About the author

David Tout is a Senior Research Fellow for Vocational, Adult & Workplace Education Services at ACER. 

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