In a speech on 17 April on improving attainment in maths among 16-18-year-olds, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made a number of claims about the impact of poor numeracy.
We’ve looked at the figures behind three of the claims Mr Sunak made. While Number 10 hasn’t responded to our queries about the evidence for the claims, we have found some evidence to support all three, though some of what the Prime Minister said would benefit from additional context.
When ministers make claims and don’t provide the sources to back them up, the public don’t have the ability to scrutinise and challenge what’s said by those in power. Government departments should be willing to explain and provide sources for claims made publicly.
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“We simply cannot allow poor numeracy… to leave people twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy.”
Mr Sunak’s claim that poor numeracy skills “leave people twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy” seems to refer to research which found a correlation between poor numeracy and unemployment, but it’s important to be clear that this research did not prove a causative link between the two.
According to the numeracy charity National Numeracy, this figure is based on a research review published in 2009 by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy. (We’ve asked Number 10 to confirm what figures he was referring to, but have not received a response.)
This 2009 review cited a study published in 2005, which in turn used data from the British Cohort Study 1970—a major ongoing study following the lives of around 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970—to find that, at the age of 30, “men and women with poor numeracy [Entry level 2 or below] were more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those with competent numeracy”.
However, while this research shows a link between poor numeracy and unemployment, the study’s co-author Dr Sam Parsons confirmed to Full Fact that it did not prove causation. In other words, we don’t know for sure that poor numeracy is responsible for unemployment, as could potentially be implied by Mr Sunak saying it can “leave people” twice as likely to be unemployed.
Dr Parsons, now a research officer at the University College London Institute of Education, told us: “The report was largely descriptive, describing associations between the combination of literacy and numeracy competencies at age 21 and outcomes at age 30, of which unemployment was one such outcome. The associations shown are not causative. “However, when we additionally controlled for highest achieved qualification the associations largely remained, although poor numeracy had a stronger association with employment outcomes for women; for men, it was only in combination with poor literacy.”
So, while the research does back up Mr Sunak’s claim that people with poor numeracy are “twice as likely” to be unemployed, it doesn’t definitively tell us that poor numeracy was the primary cause of an increased risk of unemployment among those studied.
National Numeracy told Full Fact it was not aware of any research showing a definitive causative link between poor numeracy and unemployment.
“More than 8 million adults have numeracy skills below those expected of a 9-year-old.”
We wrote about this figure when the Prime Minister previously spoke back in January about his aim of requiring young people to study some form of maths until the age of 18.
The figure appears to be taken from the 2011 Skills for Life survey, which measured basic literacy, numeracy and ICT skills in people aged 16-65 in England (based on population figures published by the Office for National Statistics, estimating a total of 34.1 million adults aged 16-65 in England in 2009). Again, we’ve asked Number 10 to confirm this source and will update this fact check if we hear back.
The survey found that 23.7% (8.1 million) of those aged 16-65 in England in 2011 had numeracy skills of “Entry level 2 or below”—equivalent to a child aged 7-9—while 49.1% (16.8 million) had numeracy skills of “Entry level 3 or below”—equivalent to a child aged 9-11.
When we asked National Numeracy about these figures, it told us that its view was that the survey “remains the most up-to-date and comprehensive measure of numeracy skills in England”.
Since the survey was conducted, the working age population in England has seen a slight increase, to approximately 36.2 million people, which equates to a slight increase in the number of working age people with “Entry level 2 or below” numeracy skills (around 8.6 million) if you apply the survey percentages to the current working-age population.
But we can’t say for certain how numeracy skills may have changed in this population since 2011.
National Numeracy told Full Fact in January: “Skills for Life reported that 49% of the working age population has the expected numeracy levels of a primary school child. Our own research since that time has supported that figure.”
“We simply cannot allow poor numeracy to cost our economy tens of billions a year…”
It’s less clear where this claim comes from—again, Number 10 hasn’t given us any response.
However it could be based on research published by Pro Bono Economics in 2014, which estimated “the cost to the UK economy of outcomes associated with low levels of numeracy is around £20.2 billion per year, or about 1.3 per cent of GDP”.
This figure is based on estimated annual costs associated with: lost earnings for individuals with poor numeracy skills; lower profits for employers as a result of lower output or productivity of workers with poor numeracy skills; and Treasury costs associated with benefit payments to individuals with poor numeracy skills, as well as lost tax revenue as a result of lower earnings of those in work.
The research estimates that lost earnings for individuals account for the largest proportion (£8.8 billion) of its central estimate of £20.2 billion, followed by government costs (£8.2 billion).
It’s worth noting that the £20.2 billion estimate is the central estimate within a broader range of estimates between £6.7 billion and £32.6 billion, and that the research does not quantify other costs potentially associated with low numeracy, such as health outcomes, rates of crime and financial planning.
Replicating Pro Bono Economics’ findings, Essential Skills Tracker recently estimated the overall cost to the UK economy to be slightly higher, with the central estimate at £28.9 billion (with 95% confidence intervals and a range between £3.9 billion and £55.7 billion).
Image courtesy of Number 10