Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Tackling the challenge of poor numeracy skills – why some teaching and learning adds up while other provision falls short

Effective numeracy teaching that is built into practical training makes a real difference to young people and adults in their work and personal lives, according to an Ofsted report published today. However, weak numeracy provision focused on worksheets and repetitive exercises can leave them both failing to understand mathematical concepts and incapable of applying their learning in their everyday lives.

Numeracy is central to success at work and educational progress. The report Tackling the challenge of low numeracy skills in young people and adults, highlights the key features of good practice and identifies the most common weaknesses of poor numeracy provision seen by inspectors during visits to colleges and to sessions held in the workplace, community settings and prisons.

The most effective teaching and learning develop learners’ numeracy skills by setting maths problems in work-related contexts and by using well-designed practical tasks and group work. Examples of good practice included construction learners developing their numeracy to calculate how many bricks were needed for a wall, and business administration learners calculating decreases in stock after a busy weekend and using this information to change their stock orders. Learners in these sessions could see how numeracy related to their careers or everyday lives and were motivated to put in the effort needed to become more skilled in tasks they had previously preferred to avoid. One learner spoke positively about how she had developed her numeracy skills:

‘When I first started my placement in a nursery for my childcare course, my maths wasn’t much better than the children’s. Now I really understand it and can explain it to the children so that they learn quickly too.’
Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, said:

‘Businesses know the importance of numeracy, and there is no doubt that being numerate and understanding how and when to use maths is crucial to being able to function effectively at work and in everyday life. This report shows what can be done to help young people and adults overcome the barriers to numeracy. I hope colleges and other providers will learn from the examples and the messages it highlights.’

The most effective colleges and other providers build numeracy into their courses, rather than keeping it separate, and make numeracy compulsory for all post-16 vocational training. In the best examples, specialist maths tutors worked closely with vocational tutors to help learners understand how to apply mathematical techniques in their training, work or personal lives.

Learners need to know the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ to be independent in numeracy. In weaker sessions, learners became preoccupied with memorising seemingly arbitrary rules without understanding them or being able to apply them in their work or training. Where provision was no better than satisfactory, too much teaching was focused on low-quality tests rather than developing learners’ real understanding of mathematical concepts.

In the report young people talk about their fear of maths, how they struggle to understand mathematical concepts, and how they’ve gained from developing their numeracy skills. One learner said, ‘I didn’t bother with maths at school, because I didn’t understand how important it would be in the future,’ while another said, ‘When did you turn the first or the second fraction upside down? – I never knew.’ Another spoke of the difference that good teaching and learning made to their life: ‘I can’t believe I had the confidence to challenge a shopkeeper who had worked out my 15% discount incorrectly. This was all down to my numeracy class.’

Additional quotes:

John Widdowson CBE, Principal & Chief Executive, New College Durham said, ‘Confidence in numeracy is essential to any student, whatever their course. Although some students may find acquiring and practising these skills a challenge, we know that by working together in a supportive environment, effective teaching can guide even the most uncertain learner to success.’ New College Durham was judged by inspectors to be outstanding at tackling the challenge of numeracy for their young people and adults.

Gordon MacLennan, Director of Curriculum & Quality, at Apprenticeship Training Ltd (ATL), based in Southampton, said, ’We place a strong focus on numeracy, using a team of learning assistants to encourage and support learners so they can get to grips with numeracy. By investing in specialist training materials and by engaging learners in both classroom and workshop numeracy activities we have been able to boost the skills and confidence of young people and secure a 100 per cent pass rate for Key Skills qualifications, including numeracy. Some of our young people arrive with low GCSE grades but many leave with key skills and technical certificate qualifications, and enter jobs in the construction industry and beyond.’

Inspectors judged ATL to be outstanding at tackling the challenge of ensuring that young people and adults gain the numeracy skills they need for their careers and personal lives.

Notes for Editors

1. The report will be available on the Ofsted website

2. This report evaluates the quality of numeracy provision for young people and adults seen in visits between May and November 2010 to 59 providers including colleges, independent learning providers, local authority providers of adult and community learning, prisons and Probation Trusts.

3. For further comment from New College Durham please contact Beth Etherington,
Marketing Manager, New College Durham, telephone 0191 375 4042, email For comment from Apprenticeship Training Ltd (ATL) please contact Alyson Marlow, PR Director, ATL, telephone 023 8063 2211, mobile 07889 774014.

4. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) regulates and inspects to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages. It regulates and inspects childcare and children's social care, and inspects the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), schools, colleges, initial teacher training, work-based learning and skills training, adult and community learning, and education and training in prisons and other secure establishments. It assesses council children’s services, and inspects services for looked after children, safeguarding and child protection.

5. Media can contact the Ofsted Press Office through 020 7421 5866 or via Ofsted's enquiry line 0300 1231231 between 8.30am - 6.30pm Monday - Friday. Out of these hours, during evenings and weekends, the duty press officer can be reached on 07919 057359. Alternatively, please email

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