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Maths: it’s an attitude

Numeracy (the ability to understand and work with numbers) is one of the key skills needed in life.  We use maths in every aspect of our lives – at work, in practical everyday activities, at home, and beyond. However, here in the UK we have a long-term and increasing issue with low levels of numeracy in the adult population. While things are improving around literacy, with 57% of working age adults in England holding a skill level equivalent to GCSE "C" grade or above (up from 44% over the last eight years), only 22% of working age adults hold a skill level equivalent to GCSE "C" grade or above in maths. And this is down by around 4% in eight years (1).

Roughly 4 out of every 5 adults in the UK has a low level of Numeracy (2)

Why does this matter?

Lower levels of numeracy are linked to lower wages and lower health outcomes. And it is estimated that low levels of numeracy cost the UK as a whole around £20 billion each year (3).

The EYFS learning outcome for numeracy continues to be one of the top three areas where children don’t achieve the expected level of development. It is often the reason children don’t meet the threshold for a ‘good level of development’ when their finally assessment is completed (4). Finally, the gap between low and high achievers in maths is greater than in any other subject (5).

Pupils beginning secondary school with very low numeracy skills but good literacy skills have an exclusion rate twice that of pupils starting secondary school with good numeracy skills (6)

Poor numeracy costs individuals in the UK on average £460 a year (7)

So what’s causing this situation?

One of the biggest factors for the UK’s poor maths outcomes is attitudes. We are one of the very few western countries where being ‘bad’ at maths is socially acceptable and at times almost expected. How often have you heard people say “I can’t do maths” or “I didn’t understand maths at school”, and laughed about it? We don’t do this with other key skills.

In fact, nearly 30% of people believe that being good at maths is an innate ‘gift’ rather than a skill that can be learnt (8). But without the confidence and competence to tackle mathematics regularly in their early years, children will miss out on important building blocks to their future learning.

There are many reasons for these attitudes including; bad experiences, anxiety around using maths and a lack of support for adults to change views they may have developed while at school. In fact, as many as one in four adults don’t feel that maths at school prepared them for using maths in everyday life and this has a knock on impact on how important they view maths for getting on in life (9).

Believing that maths isn’t important, or writing yourself off as being ‘bad’ at it, blocks the ability for the UK to improve its maths outcomes for the next generation.

The solution?

One of the biggest things you can do is not to perpetuate the story that ‘maths doesn’t matter’ or that being bad at maths is ‘ok’ or ‘normal’. Be positive about maths when round the children you care for (even if underneath it all you don’t feel positive!) and work together with parents. For example, try not to say, ‘”it’s ok, I didn’t understand maths” or “I don’t like maths” or “maths is hard”. If children grow up in an environment where maths is seen as important and possible for all, then one of the biggest hurdles to start the journey to better maths outcomes will have been overcome.

If leaders, staff and parents can help to equip young children with a ‘can do’ attitude around maths, giving them the confidence to try things out and discover new skills in the same way they do for other areas of learning, we will have made a massive step in the right direction.

Three top tips

  • Be positive about maths. Don't say things like “I can’t do maths” or “I hated maths at school”
  • Point out the maths in everyday life. Include children in activities involving maths such as using money, cooking, travelling or finding the correct house number.
  • Praise children for effort rather than talent. This shows them that by working hard they can always improve.

To find out more about how you can start to be more positive about maths watch this short video from National Numeracy.


Julia Sudbury, owner and head consultant at Cambridge Early Years, providing support and guidance to childminders, nurseries and local authorities.

Take a look at PACEY's early maths spotlight.


1,2,3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 – National Numeracy website
4 - Early years foundation stage profile results in England, 2016, DFE

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