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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



One in four Europeans lack numeracy skills - enough is enough

by Anonymous (not verified)
Language: EN
Document available also in: PL

A staggering one in four European adults has problems with basic numeracy. Simply put, one in four is unacceptable.

The OECD Adult Skills Survey 2012 (sometimes known as PIAAC) found that 24% of the EU population aged 16-65 were at or below Level 1 of the five-point scale. For clarity, tasks at PIAAC level 1 require simple processes, usually involving one step, such as locating and identifying numeric elements, counting, sorting, or understanding simple percentages such as 50%.

The survey also found that skills decline with age, so levels of numeracy for people over 65 are weaker still.  This means that a quarter of the EU population has difficulties in real world maths, from basic addition and subtraction to calculating averages.

Figure 1: How proficient are adults in numeracy?

Share of the population 16-65 years old at each skills level per country

The European Commission found that too many European citizens are caught in a 'low skills trap', and asserted that  “the key policy challenge is to help those adults to escape that situation”.

In May 2014, the EBSN published a policy brief on numeracy, highlighting some promising evidence.  For example, the Adult Skills Survey shows that Korea is among the three lowest-performing countries when comparing the skills proficiency of 55-65 year-olds, yet Korea ranks second only to Japan for proficiency among 16-24 year-olds, indicating that substantial progress is achievable.

Closer to home, in Denmark, there is a national curriculum in adult basic numeracy with a national teaching guide and training supports.  Provision is guided by the understanding that numeracy relates to social context and change. So the student is actively involved in deciding the content of courses with the teachers.  The Adult Skills Survey shows that numeracy skills in Denmark are relatively better than literacy skills for all age-groups.

The EBSN Numeracy brief concluded that change is needed in policy and in public attitudes to address the numeracy issue at national and European levels.

You can help   

But change is also needed among the mind-sets of those who earn their living in basic skills development.  

And that, I suspect, speaks directly to most readers of this blog post.

The EBSN can support change by providing a channel for greater dialogue between professionals and greater levels of collaborative action. Quite simply, we need to share our experiences, our views and our ideas about numeracy, to highlight evidence of sound policies, and to consider promising practices from different countries and settings.

  • Do you know of any promotional campaigns that successfully attract adults into numeracy courses?
  • Do you know of provision which supports numeracy development in a range of different contexts – for example in the workplace, for everyday purposes and for pleasure?
  • Do you know cases where (or how) numeracy has been successfully embedded in other learning?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, please tell me– by posting a reply here. 

In doing so you will also be telling people working in numeracy and basic skill development in Europe.  And even more importantly, you will be contributing to a dialogue that may result in the change needed to address the unacceptable levels of numeracy in European countries.  Because one in four is unacceptable, and it is up to us to change it.


John Stewart is the National Adult Literacy Coordinator, with NALA – the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland. John’s current responsibilities include supporting literacy and numeracy development with education providers and for the unemployed. John is active in ELINET, the European Literacy Network and in the ESBN, the European Basic Skills, where he developed the EBSN policy brief on numeracy. John is an ex-volunteer adult literacy tutor in inner city Dublin and continues to sit on the board of directors.

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  • Catherine Byrne's picture
    Maybe we need to talk about "literacy and numeracy" or " basic skills" as numeracy so often slips off the agenda. I can't answer yes to any of the above questions, and I'd love to hear if there many positive responses. I find as a teacher in prison education and a researcher that most people have higher hidden numeracy skills than they think but they don't see it as numeracy or maths skills. This can really help people to engage as they become aware of their prior learning and invisible number skills, like money saved in the bank that you didn't know you had.... Finally I'd like to ask the question " how do you feel about numeracy? And about maths?" Start with ourselves, teachers and tutors.
  • Ewa Smuk-Stratenwerth's picture

    myślę, że problem, o którym pisze John Stewart, a który dotyczy także osób dorosłych w Polsce, pokazuje jak bardzo potrzebne są dziś inicjatywy oddolne, trafiające do osób zagrożonych wykluczeniem, np. z terenów wiejskich. Nasze doświadczenie edukacyjne bazuje na idei uniwersytetów ludowych, które w Danii zainicjował N.F.S. Grundtvig, a które w Polsce rozkrzewił Ignacy Solarz. W tej metodzie wplata się naukę konkretnych kompetencji w szerszy edukacyjny kontekst. Mówi się o "holistycznym", bardziej całościowym podejściu do człowieka. Wszak brak umiejętności liczenia jest symptomem szerszego problemu. I samo nauczenie liczenia tego problemu nie rozwiąże. Warto wracać do najlepszych europejskich wzorów pedagogicznych, nawet jeżeli pozornie "trącą myszką". A przy okazji, w Skandynawii, gdzie idea uniwersytetów ludowych jest wciąż żywa, wyniki podane w badaniu są najlepsze.

  • Hubert Skrzyński's picture

    A very interesting article. And, indeed, the numbers are overwhelming. As a prison school employee in Poland, I must admit that I have never heard and thought of a problem of illiterate inmates in Polish prisons. I am not saying, however, that the problem does not exist. Maybe the problem is hidden and am now thinking to myself that the ones who go to school (on any level) are, naturally, literate. Nevertheless, one should look into the fact that out of the whole prison population in Poland, only 5% (!!!) take part in various formal education forms. Now, the question arises - what about the remaining 95%? Do they not need any other qualifications? Are they already qualified enough? Or maybe they are (of course not everyone but part of them) simply illiterate and cannot attend any school, but primary school. Obviously, primary schools for adult inmates are a rarity, so, in a way, they are limited in their choice... This is a great subject to do research!