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The urgent need for the UK to raise its game on number and data skills

Blog • • Warwick Mansell

Can we ever get to a position where people across the UK are proud of their fluency with numbers, and where no-one will say unashamedly that ‘I can’t do maths’?

It seems a daunting challenge, given the number of studies[i] pointing to a deficit in basic mathematics skills in the general population, and with this country not often winning positive headlines for its school pupils’ performance in international tests in the subject.

Yet quantitative skills – or the ability to reason using numbers – seem increasingly important. People need them, for example, to ensure that they are not exploited as consumers in the marketplace, or taken for a ride by politicians presenting statistics in a misleading way. At the more advanced end of the scale, the arrival of “big data” is presenting huge opportunities for countries which can build their people’s skills of information analysis, while large datasets are also opening up major new avenues for researchers.

It is this dual position – the challenge of improving the UK population’s number and data skills, set against the opportunities if we do – which lies behind Count Us In: the new British Academy vision paper on improving quantitative skills (QS) which I worked with the Academy to write.

I was guided for more than a year by a steering group on the development of the paper. This was something I was happy to get involved with, as I love maths and data analysis has also become a large part of my job as an education journalist. Spreadsheets of, say, school results, pupil numbers and Ofsted inspection judgements increasingly form the basis for reporting investigations, with knowledge of the limitations of these datasets also needing to be borne in mind.[ii]

The Academy also commissioned a State of the Nation background report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research which provides a comprehensive account on the national supply and demand for quantitative skills.

The thinking behind “Count Us In” – which was launched at the House of Lords last week – was that, while many would acknowledge the importance of this agenda, and while there have been many initiatives designed to address it, a potentially transformative change in policymaking is needed.

For instance, many would say that STEM education itself – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has been given a high priority by recent governments. But the importance, also, of improving quantitative skills outside the STEM subjects at university- both among undergraduates taking social sciences and humanities at university; and among researchers in these subjects – has received a lower profile.

And yet, we would argue, change in these areas is tremendously important in its own right. Large datasets have huge potential in augmenting qualitative research in social science and humanities disciplines, while social science and humanities graduates with good data skills stand to be powerfully-equipped for progress either in the workplace or in academia.

There are incentives in the higher education system which currently work in the wrong way, with universities having modified degree courses in a non-quantitative direction in response to undergraduates embarking on courses with varying, and often weak, QS.

The view of the Academy is that, overall, there is a “poverty of aspiration” among universities in relation to their students’ quantitative skills. We recognise that higher education institutions are working in a competitive market, where it may be difficult for individual institutions to take a stance to require higher levels of QS, for fear of putting off applicants. Thus, we think there should be a co-ordinated effort between universities, learned societies and curriculum authorities to ratchet up the QS content of the social science and humanities programmes they offer.

Similarly, in schools and colleges, governments across the UK have reviewed curricula in recent years. Yet these reforms need to be more than one-off, “big bang” changes, but part of a structure of continual review and evaluation, since the weaknesses the country has in quantitative skills are long-standing and require concerted efforts to change.

Evidence presented in our “State of the Nation” report[iii] showed that the need for advanced mathematics or statistics in the workplace has been rising, with seven out of 10 employees saying that quantitative skills are essential or important in their jobs. The economic prize for getting this right, in the field of “big data” alone, which involves the interpretation of large datasets, may be huge[iv].

This all underpins the need for a concerted and sustained effort, across all four nations of the UK, between government, education and employers to make improving people’s number and data skills a top priority.

Count Us In envisages a “generation of citizens, consumers, students and workers as comfortable with numbers as they are with words”. At its launch event, several speakers challenged a part of that phrase, in that they questioned how fluent the UK population even is with words.

Yet the perception of many working in the fields of literacy and numeracy is that people are much more reluctant to say they cannot read than that they cannot do maths. But number and data skills should be seen for the fantastically empowering qualities they are if developed. Changing perceptions and building knowledge will not happen overnight. However, the evidence of this report is that this agenda needs to be addressed with some urgency.

[i] Such as, for example Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2011). The 2011 Skills for Life Survey: a survey of literacy, numeracy and ICT levels in England. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

[ii] We heard at the launch of Count Us In that the new “Q-Step” centres, which are designed to improve the teaching of quantitative skills for social science at university, are finding a willing new audience of undergraduates who want to take advantage of data analysis to investigate subjects about which they feel passionate. I very much share that feeling in my day job. “Big data” is already here in my field of education policy analysis and reporting, and likely to get more influential.

[iii] Mason, G., Nathan, M., and Rosso, A. (2015). “State of the Nation: A review of evidence on the supply and demand of quantitative skills.” British Academy and NIESR.

[iv] One study predicts that “big and open data” will generate £147 billion per annum to GDP across the European Union by 2020. See Buchholtz, S., Bukowski, M. and Sniegocki, A. (2014). “Big and open data in Europe: a growth engine or a missed opportunity?” Demos Europa and Warsaw Institute for Economic Studies.

The Count Us In report from the British Academy offers a vision of how the UK can rise to the potentially transformational challenge of becoming a data-literate nation.  It calls for a cultural change across all phases of education and employment, together with a concerted, continuous national effort led by government. Find out more: www.britac.ac.uk/countusin

Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist. Having started his career as a local reporter with the Cambridge Evening News, he then spent nine years at the Times Educational Supplement, before going freelance in 2009. He is the author of Education by Numbers: the Tyranny of Testing (Politico’s 2007) and writes regularly for the Guardian.