/ Money

Can you afford not to be a numbers person?


Are you number-savvy or do you struggle with basic numeracy when it comes to budgeting and borrowing? Guest Rachel Malic from National Numeracy says we all need to become numbers people…

Ask any group of people how they feel about sums and you’ll get someone who says they’re ‘not a numbers person’. It’s always a bit awkward when a moment later I tell them I work for National Numeracy, the charity dedicated to helping improve the nation’s abilities with everyday maths.

Over the past few years, we have written to L’Oreal, EE, supermarket chains and even Prince William to challenge anti-maths comments. But with times being tight for so many of us, how can we afford not to be numbers people?

Why aren’t we number-savvy?

Comparison sites encourage us to ‘do the maths’ before switching current accounts and weigh up cashback incentives against poor interest rates. Then there were the findings last year that people who are better with numbers are likely to have more savings.

But scarily all the signs suggest that too many of us aren’t being number-savvy yet.

A survey in 2011 found that half of the adult population has the numeracy skills equivalent to a primary school child. And a few months ago, the Money Advice Service reported that a staggering 18 million adults in the UK lack the numeracy skills to manage their money well.

So, if millions of us struggle with basic numeracy then how are we making informed decisions on major things like savings, pensions and borrowing? What if we mess up a decision which affects our cash flow for years to come?

Don’t be a numeracy naysayer

If financial services, banks, and pensions providers simplified the numerical gobbledygook we have all encountered, and put their numbers plainly, it would be great. But this on its own is unlikely to solve things.

National Numeracy has found that one of the main reasons why people brush up on their everyday maths is to get better at managing their money. We have been helping people with our free, confidential level checker to do just this.

If you know any numeracy naysayers tell them to take a look. Or why not try it for yourself and post your results below? If you score 80 or more you’ve got the Essentials of Numeracy.

Whether it’s for the sake of our everyday finances, planning for retirement, or to avoid falling foul of exploitation, we all have to be ‘numbers people’ to an extent. Can you afford not to be better at basic numeracy these days?

This is a guest contribution by Rachel Malic from National Numeracy, an independent charity committed to helping raise low levels of numeracy and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills. All views expressed here are Rachel’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Should it be up to individuals to improve their numeracy, or up to the banks and other services to simplify their communications?

A bit of both (61%, 123 Votes)

Banks and financial services (22%, 44 Votes)

Individuals (17%, 34 Votes)

Total Voters: 201

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Are you a numbers person or do you struggle with everyday maths?


I took the test and scored full marks right up to the point where the system fell over, owing to a BB issue nearby, I suspect. But I would contest the idea that the test itself represents basic numeracy. Calculating the area of a circle from the diameter is not basic, neither is it particularly useful in the real world. And calculating the relative percentages of traffic incident severity in any one week was a glaring example of just why so many people are both non-mathematical and resistant to any idea of numeracy.

Maths and Numeracy have been badly taught for years. Meaningless and irrelevant problems given to children to ‘solve’ suck the joy out of any form of numeracy, when problem solving (which is what numeracy actually becomes) can be both immensely satisfying and enjoyable.

However, what I disliked most of all was the detailed and intrusive registration procedure at the outset. That was compulsory, unnecessarily invasive and if you’re genuinely seeking to improve numeracy that wasn’t a good way to go about it, in my opinion. But it was very typical of a Maths teacher.

I 100% agree with you on the login Ian. I was going to take the test but stopped when asked to register.

Why would a charity that wants to improve numeracy insist on registration?

Same for me. This is no way to reach out to those whose education has failed them.

Hi Rachel,

Thank you for taking the time to reply even though the response is probably not what you expected.

Your site would seem friendlier and more accessible if you were not required to register, but given the option of providing your email address for further help and info. Personally, I would not want a certificate, but the option could be there for those who wanted one.

Thanks for taking the time to reply, Rachel. I believe the problem here lies with a complete absence of explanation on the splash page.

For instance, all that is really needed to email results and print a certificate is an email and a name, but both should have been made optional, and you really should have explained exactly why you wanted that information.

And there was a lot of other information demanded (it wasn’t optional) that was clearly unrelated to the reasons you’ve given (gender, postcode etc).

Numeracy is essential, but I hope you can see that the approach taken in this instance is rather off-putting, especially to those who might be worried about their ability.

I also believe feedback should be regularly provided on the site itself; this is a basic tenet of good teaching. Sending the feedback by email means the moment of gratification is missed, the student has no idea how well they’re doing, and it can build resentment in the participant. As it does…

I’m now doing the test for the second time. Here’s the thing: if the questions were not worded to deliberately sow confusion in the minds of the participants, it would be a more pleasant experience. As it is, the wording of the questions is designed to confuse.

This is an old ploy and the delight of numeracy teachers everywhere. It’s even passed into folklore in the comedy arena where, to judge from the audience reaction, it seems to be a shared experience.

Numeracy could be improved by making the teaching of it far better – and making it fun. This ‘test’, however, is a great example of how it shouldn’t be done

Well, now. Once you get to the end of the first ‘trial’ I would expect a test of this nature to give feedback but no; it now says we n ow need to ask you some other questions…

So thus far:
Invasive and compulsory registration
Irrelevant questions
Deliberately confusing wording
Lack of instant feedback at the end of each level

Marks out of 10: 2

Must try a lot harder…

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the format and design of the entire process is less than welcoming:

“Now we’ll ask you some numeracy questions to find out:

If you have the Essentials of Numeracy – if not, how we can help you get there
Your target to work towards

There’s no time limit and no pressure… it usually takes around half an hour, but we’ll save your progress if you need to log out and carry on later.”

and the screen has other little titbits, such as

“You’ll get a target once you’ve taken the Check-Up Starter “

Reminding participants of their school days…


Ok; time for your check up”

which makes me wonder if I’m back at school or sitting in the surgery. Neither, however, is an experience for which I yearn.

As an example of deliberately confusing wording this is interesting:

If you have £755 and you spend £642 of it, how much do you have left?

I fail to see the relevance of a calculation of that type phrased in that way. It’s simple enough to do in your head, so why the odd and potentially confusing wording? Part of the confusion originates with the question setter’s inability to follow simple logic.

“If you have…” is an odd way of saying “I counted up my spare cash and found I had…” but why not simply ask what 755 minus 642 is? Far less confusing. But then, in my experience numeracy was always intended to be confusing. I found the Mensa entrance tests far easier to do, which suggests there may be something wrong with this approach.

One bit of numeracy that I don’t get is the confusing terminology used by commerce to bamboozle us on prices and values. Whether it is “X % representative” or the Euro/Pound exchange rate displayed in the windows, I think most people just give up. Years ago you could get a cheap and handy ‘Ready Reckoner’ that made all sorts of calculations so simple. I suppose there’s an app that does it but I haven’t looked.

Of course, were the question setters inclined to follow their own observations, life might be easier:

If financial services, banks, and pensions providers simplified the numerical gobbledygook we have all encountered, and put their numbers plainly, it would be great

Only one thing missing from the list…

Please could we have a similar test freely available @rmalic so that we can offer some feedback without the need to register. I’m not keen to provide my email address.

I don’t have concerns about my own numeracy. When I was working I was so concerned about the lack of numeracy of first year university students that I produced various own tests relevant to their studies. These were used by staff to evaluate and support the students in small tutorial groups. It was a little worrying that some of the younger members of staff asked for answer sheets. 🙁

Hi Rachel – Thanks very much for coming back and joining this Conversation. I’m afraid that the regulars here (those who have posted so far) can be a little critical but it’s all intended to be constructive. 🙂

I will have a look at the weekend but feel that registration is off-putting. Thanks for the link, which I will have a look at when the website is back online. Having seen students use a calculator to divide by two and multiply by 1000 I despair at times, but some cope well or learn to if they have the motivation.

One of my favourite ways of helping with numeracy problems was to invite anyone in a group to use the whiteboard and explain how they would tackle a calculation etc. Often someone would volunteer and the satisfaction of being able to explain to others what you have struggled with but have mastered can do a lot to boost confidence.

Thanks for the response, Rachel.

I thought students cut their numeracy teeth on Countdown every afternoon and in darts matches at the weekends. My guess is that the audience you are trying to reach is somewhat less well educated and would not engage with anything too far out of their comfort zone.

The questions are wonderful:

You have a voucher to save 5p a litre on fuel. How much would you save when filling up an empty 10 gallon fuel tank? (One gallon = 4.5 litres).

You are facing North. You turn clockwise through 225˚. Which direction are you facing now?

Interesting if you were standing at a Pole… And this constitutes the Essentials of Numeracy???

Good point, Ian. Whichever way you turn you can only face north at the South Pole and no matter how hard you try you cannot face north at the North Pole.

And a 225 degrees clockwise turn will bring you somewhere in the direction of West South West. We don’t need to know that.

I’m afraid I despair if this organisation is supposed to be helping people.

At the end of the second section, still no feedback other than this:

We now know how confident you are with ‘Shape, Space and Measures’.
You’ve now worked through 1 of the 4 areas of numeracy.”

No feedback whatsoever? The lack of feedback is the most egregious aspect of this experience. Feedback is essential – to adults, children and animals. That this site, which purports to be “helping people with our free, confidential level checker offers no feedback, other than ‘badges’ is an indictment of their own experiences in education.

It is highly possible that those who struggle with numbers and sums could also be fazed by complex language constructions. For goodness’ sake, what on earth in everyday life is a ‘confidential level checker’? [And a hyphen would have helped.]

I am sorry that this topic has had to be comprehensively trashed – and with justification – but it really is incredibly misguided and I am surprised that Which? allowed it onto the site.

Hi all, while I appreciate that you’ve all had feedback about the quiz I think you’re being a bit unfair here. The National Numeracy charity has joined us here to talk about numeracy skills and their campaign to help people manage finances, it’s an interesting campaign that they’re running and we’re pleased to have them join us. We thought you’d enjoy sharing your views on this issue, especially as some aspects of managing finances can be complex. Can I please ask that you all ensure that your comments follow our commenting rules – thank you everyone 🙂

Now back to numeracy skills… I like to test out my skills by keeping a budgeting tracker on my phone, it’s almost as game for me! I simply keep a running tracker in a note on my phone of what I’m spending. My mental maths isn’t too bad!

I’m sorry, Lauren, but I’m in complete agreement with John. This should have been vetted far better than it has.

Thanks for your feedback, Ian. Can I please request that further feedback on this is shared with us via email or over on The Lobby.

Your wish….

Numeracy seems to be something we feel unimportant, if the critical comments above are anything to go by. Judging by some comments in Convos. some feel they have no reason to be able to deal with numbers – they cannot even work out an electricity charge when asked to multiply two numbers together and add a third. Many people at work , for hobbies, managing finances, shopping prudently for example will need maths techniques to help them do it properly, or even at all.

I suspect many are simply afraid of numbers, maybe because they could not be bothered at school, or more likely were badly taught and that fear stopped them trying.

I did the initial test, thought the questions asked were clear and sensible, tackled a whole range of problems, and if anyone is interested to improve their numeracy skill, should lead on to them getting help. Maybe then we’d see people doing personal budgets and helping themselves deal with their finances, be able to calculate best value for money, work out their taxes even. We cannot use the excuse that others should do it for us.

Why be scornful of a constructive initiative? The email request does allow them to follow up from time to time with new stuff designed to help. I see nothing wrong with that; if someone is interested in the first place, trying to keep that interest going is a good thing.

I did, out of irritation with some negative and rather derisive comments, mark them down, but then thought better of it. I don’t like thumbs down much.

I’m curious as to how you draw the conclusion

Numeracy seems to be something we feel unimportant, if the critical comments above are anything to go by

There’s no evidence of that any where in any of the comments, and it’s actually the opposite: numeracy is vitally important – but the doubt is being cast on this way of achieving the stated aim. Nowhere has anyone said numeracy is unimportant, but this isn’t the best way to help those with poor numeracy skills.

Ad when you say

“I did the initial test, thought the questions asked were clear and sensible”

I can only imagine we were doing different examples. Most of the questions I did were unnecessarily convoluted, phrased poorly and seemed designed to deter, rather than encourage. The North question was just one example.

I have, however, a criticism to add. The poll that came with this Convo says “Should it be up to individuals to improve their numeracy, or up to the banks and other services to simplify their communications?”
This is the kind of poll that I find silly and pointless. There are a lot of reasons to increase your numeracy, many not at all connected with banks and services. Equally, “banks and other services” should be as clear as possible in presenting information” It is not either or, but both. Is this just another attempt to get at banks and others?

Patrick Taylor says:
26 January 2018

I have to say my hopes that this was an answer my suggestion that Which? do Awards and Tests was being answered. Unfortunately it seems to veer off into areas which are uncommon and not cover enough in a financial way.

Having said that I have completed it and appear to be around 90%. I applaud the idea but the execution I am rather saddened at.

Now there is a rather vexing point early on which seems wrong from the standpoint of real life. This is the question of the books. Please do not read further if you wish to attempt the quiz untainted.

The Q on books fundamentally comes down to whether, given you have to purchase two books, it is better to buy a book and get one free, or have two books at half-price. In real life I know that the most expensive of the two books will be the one I have to pay for and the cheaper one will be free. In that case and assuming a differential I believe I am better of by paying 50% on each book.

If the question stated they are the same price we do not have a problem. But it did not.

Expensive book £30 cheap book £ 20 total cost £30
at half-price £15 plus £10 would be £25.

I am I must admit a bit gobsmacked at the question. Another reality is that I might see another book at half price that I would buy so to me regardless of a buy one get one free offer the half-price option wins.

Also given the pleasure of advising on the metric to imperial conversion details why were the formulae not also offered to those of us who may have forgotten them from non-use in the last 5 decades.

Many people will not think beyond the headline in a store when looking at what the best offer might be.

If you don’t know the conversion for metric to imperial you can look it up. All part of a learning process; we should dexercise our brains and not have everything handed to us on a plate. 🙂

Patrick Taylor says:
26 January 2018

And of course I completely missed the 75% off offer on everything for purchases. Sometimes the inability to read a question properly is the biggest cause of error. : ) In fact most of the mistakes I made were of the mental trick style or formulae. However the explanation of the correct answers and why would be an improvement I think.

In a way though the idea that one has all these options how to pay in a single small purchase just typifies the confusion element. If the question was re-phrased as – You have four bookshops in town and you need to buy two books and these are the options it becomes more real life.

More wordy but to lull people into the idea that basic numeracy is very useful. I am always struck that asking people “dartboard” questions is quite cunning. You say Jim on 235 has scored treble 20 an 18 and double 19 what is his new score.

I agree that we should constantly challenge ourselves, Malcolm; we need to be exercising our intellects all the time. But there was something else thirty five years ago that might strike a chord or two now: the first personal calculators were arriving and ti was very soon that Primary school teachers were arguing that basic numeracy was unimportant. It was a further five years before a growing movement among teachers was arguing that not only was numeracy vital, but children needed to be able to have a sharp command of mental arithmetical problems so that when working out problems they would already have an idea of what the right answer should look like.

One definition of genius, interestingly, is the ability to make leaps to conclusions not directly attainable through calculation but which are later proved to be accurate. I sometimes wonder if mental arithmetic is part of that process.

Patrick makes the observation about the need to read the question properly. How true; I think many jump to a conclusion about what it says rather than think about it. Numeracy is as much, if not more, about knowing how to work out the solution to a problem than just manipulating the numbers – which is what basic calculators do. The ability to estimate an approximate answer often requires a feel for the scales involved – making an approximate but quick answer can be very useful at times.

I took the check a second time and found the questions just as sensible; some needed a little thought as before, but so do everyday problems. I presume those who devise these tests have the knowledge to know how best to test our understanding of matters concerning numbers, even when that may be unclear to others.

I presume those who devise these tests have the knowledge to know how best to test our understanding of matters concerning numbers

Actually, that shouldn’t be assumed. One of the issues I was advising on some years ago was the truly lamentable state of Mathematics teaching in the UK. We were, at the time, attempting to find out precisely why many either cannot do or intensely dislike numeracy and maths and we examined research which had discovered some truly concerning things. One of those was that the state of numeracy teaching in primary schools was poor because so many primary school teachers were numerically illiterate. Thus they passed on their fear – if you like – to a young generation. But then we found that secondary teaching wasn’t that much better. Despite many secondary teachers having a degree in the subject, a surprisingly large number couldn’t or wouldn’t infuse their lessons with any real enthusiasm for numeracy.

I wasn’t simply picking holes before: what I saw makes me worried that we haven’t learnt very much over the past thirty years.

Patrick Taylor says:
26 January 2018

I think you are perhaps being kind malcolm. From the point of gaining much useful data on the public’s numeracy it is probably cleverly constructed.

As a means of making numeracy appealing or as fun I think it is way too hard. Unless of course the program is designed to fling harder questions at those who appear capable of answering. I may have ended up doing 10 more questions per session …. who knows.! : )

I am kind, Patrick. While numeracy can be fun – many like problem solving for its own sake – it has serious purpose, both for people at work and to help us in uor own lives. Dianne Abbott showed how basic numeracy can be a disturbing failing for someone who is in a position of power.

I’ll have a go now past the check stage even though I have always, in my view, been fairlygood with numbers (engineers need to be 🙂 )

The request for age might well shed some light on how education in numeracy has changed through the generations, maybe related to teaching methods. The request for gender might also show whether there is
a link with ability.

I’m all for people who want to be helped to improve their understanding of anything, particularly practical matters that can help them better organise their lives. I’d like Which?, possibly in conjunction with banks, to help people budget their finances for example, and understand how their bills, charges and interest rates work.

Patrick Taylor says:
26 January 2018

The Accounts and the aims etc

I think there has been a horrible mismatch of what was expected from the article and what it was in actuality. Perhaps it was my fault to expect it to look at practical day to day problems relevant to normal folk.
“So, if millions of us struggle with basic numeracy then how are we making informed decisions on major things like savings, pensions and borrowing? What if we mess up a decision which affects our cash flow for years to come?

I am afraid basic numeracy to me is less than what was tested. The extension of the argument of failing basic numeracy to pensions and savings I thought rather manufactured. Almost as though I could be tested on car mechanicals and then asked why I failed to service my own car. Perhaps certain things are too complex to master when you can get someone to do it for you.

I can assure you that finance is very difficult not just because of numbers but far far more important are peoples priorities versus income. But then decades spent sorting out peoples finances and dabbling in pensions and mortgages, and for that matter shares, perhaps means I have a very practical view of the matter.

Anyway the work this charity does to improve people’s numeracy I think is worthwhile. It is a shame that simple numeracy is not better taught at school. It is curious that our Education system still needs the input of outsiders to improve matters.

National Numeracy has been going for a year or two now; maybe they have acquired some statistics to know how successful – or not – their approach has been. Perhaps they will tell us. Meanwhile I’ll continue to presume that they know something about what they are doing – until proved otherwise. I’d rather support a constructive initiative until I know better. There is no doubt in my mind that numeracy is very beneficial and people of all ages should be helped to deal with it.

Working with numbers provides the practice needed for most people to be come confident and avoid mistakes. One example is the dart player who can subtract any number from 301 or 501 without thinking, but might struggle with other tasks.

Now that we have calculators, spreadsheets and shops tills that produce numbers that don’t need to be checked, there is less need to work with numbers.

I expect that those involved with this discussion will have spent time solving problems published in Sunday newspapers or magazines. Clearly that’s not everyone’s idea of fun but it’s obviously possible to produce games, apps and so on to introduce an element of fun. Looking back at the previous posts, I see that Patrick mentions ‘appealing’ and ‘fun’.

‘Fun’ should be the basic ingredient behind all learning.

I expect that we can all see evidence of this. Motivation and need can drive learning as well as making it fun. From my experience even science graduates are not always numerate, but given a research project where this is important they can quickly develop the skills.

I have no personal experience of school teaching but have little doubt that having kids work with numbers on a regular basis will help a lot.

Any thoughts about what contribution parents can be expected to make?

Not all learning is “fun”, however desirable that might be. Much is hard work, hopefully supported by genuine interest. Encouraging essential/desirable skills that many see as “not fun” should be supported and I hope that National Numeracy are successful in that, making up for what education did not do for some.

@rmalic, do you have information on the success of your work? How many people have taken part and how have their numeracy skills improved?

Patrick Taylor says:
26 January 2018

The Accounts I have linked to actually have details of accomplishments so I found that interesting. In terms of bangs per buck it certainly seems good value.

@rmalic, Thanks Rachel. If you see improvements then you’ve achieved something that was missing.
I’d like to see you back and encouraging more people to improve their numeracy, but also to maybe show where they have most improved.

I think “book sale” question got me too 🙁

I was disappointed to only get 98% 🙁

Otherwise, I essentially agree with the comments above, especially everything Ian said.

Where I now instruct, many of our courses start with a slide whose title is:



“What’s In It For Me?”

In contemporary education, all too often I keep seeing failures to teach stuff in simple and sensible ways. These get all mixed up high falutin’ academic stuff (you’ve got to learnt his stuff ‘cos it’s on the National curriculum, so then we can load it with academic value…) but easy opportunities to tie the material to its real world value are sadly missed.