Do the math – Let’s make sure we don’t lose adults from the Financial Capability equation

This edition of the Financial Capability week guest blog comes from Paul Foss, Data Analyst at National Numeracy an independent charity helping adults and children across the UK to improve their numeracy.

I used to be a teacher. Long hours, low pay. Then I “did the math”. Just the fact that I was doing the math told me that I was in the wrong job. But more than the hourly rate calculations, it was the constant teacher-bashing, especially from the media, that wore me (and many of my colleagues) down on an almost daily basis. Whenever there’s an issue raised about the country’s key skills, we say “let’s teach the kids”, or often “let’s get the teachers to teach the kids properly”, but it amounts to the same thing; put more things on the plates of teachers. And let us not forget, they certainly won’t be measured on these things. It’s the number of A*-Cs, some basic safeguarding measures and very little else.

For example, in December 2011 a motion was tabled in parliament to debate financial education and the issue of young people growing up in an increasingly complex financial world. An APPG had been formed which had the backing of over 200 MPs, and a report was produced to say, “Personal finance education should be a compulsory part of every school’s curriculum” including a recommendation for it to be taught cross-curricular in mathematics and PSHE secondary education. Interestingly, during the debate, pitches were made from both sides of the house stating that financial education was all very well but without basic numeracy skills, it was useless. This was agreed with “100%” at the time, but somehow lost thereafter.

Of course, we need to tackle these issues early on in people’s lives. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we shouldn’t address these issues in schools.


(a) it ignores the fact that 49% of the working-age population have numeracy at or below the level of an 11 year old. [1]

(b) it will, by definition, take years to implement, measure and take effect.

Imagine the utopia. Personal financial education is taught in maths and PSHE secondary school lessons and is successful in teaching all our children what they need to deal with the “increasingly complex financial world”. In 5 years’ time, we’ll have our first batch of financially capable 16 year-olds. 720,030 young people[2] (1% of the population) will join the rest of us (over 41 million) in the world of work. But don’t forget, 49% of us (over 20 million) have low numeracy, and therefore cannot be financially capable. Some quick calculations show that at this point 52% of the population are financially capable (and that’s assuming that all numerate people are financially capable, which they’re not!!!)

Fast forward another 5 years…now schools are turned out 4.6 million financially capable adults. Yet still just 56% of the population are financially capable. After 15 years, 61%…and that’s assuming the policy is 100% impactful[3]. And in the meantime? Shall we address the 49%?

It puts me in mind of a school maths problem when you have to add squash concentrate into a jug of already heavily diluted mixture. Adding a drop of concentrate every year to the jug is not going to make a difference that quickly.

The OECD have in October 2016 produced an International Survey of Adult Financial Literacy Competencies. The key findings were that overall Financial Capability scores were low and key policy recommendations were (1) yes, you’ve guessed it – to stress “the importance of starting financial education early and, ideally, in schools”. More work for teachers.

Fortunately, this report’s saving grace was the 2nd policy recommendation, namely “Public authorities should also seek ways to strengthen knowledge, skills and behaviours of adults through a combination of financial education and other policies”. It’s just a shame that this isn’t the first recommendation. Policy recommendations rarely seem to have much effect beyond the first bullet point.

Another encouraging finding of this report was “Low levels of numeracy may be further reducing the ability of individuals to make sound decisions by applying financial knowledge”, something that the work on personal finance education noted but didn’t follow up. This remark is particularly pertinent when you consider the detail of the report.

There are some stark warnings for the UK. In overall Financial Capability we came 13 out of 17 the participating OECD countries. But more worrisome, when you break this down into Behaviour, Attitudes and Knowledge the gap becomes glaringly obvious. Behaviour – 10/17 (above average), Attitudes 8/17 (above average), Knowledge/Numeracy 17/17.

We are the worst performing country when it comes to Knowledge, and specifically Numeracy. And addressing this issue is not easy; it’s not easy for policy makers and it’s certainly not easy for those who are innumerate. Improving any skills, but especially how to handle numbers and data in everyday life to make sound financial decisions is a long and often painful process. And it doesn’t even start with “doing the math”. It starts with instilling value, belief, effort and above all confidence.

So come on folks. Let’s stop increasing the workload of already overburdened teachers and start making a difference to the lives of millions of people by focussing on the long-neglected adult numeracy gap. You’ll see more benefit, more quickly and I would suggest it will have a positive impact on future generations when they see the changes being made by their parents and other role models.


Paul Foss is Data Analyst for National Numeracy, 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. The National Numeracy Challenge has over 86,000 registered users.  Paul has over 20 years’ experience in the private sector, and a background in teaching secondary school maths.

To submit a blog on financial capability, please contact [email protected].


[1] Department for Business Innovation and Skills: A Survey of Literacy, Numeracy and ICT Levels in England Skills for Life (2011)

[2] Office for National Statistics – Mid-2015 Population estimates – Published 6th October 2016.

[3] MAS press release – Just 40% of young people say they are taught basic money management – 14th Nov 2016


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