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Masters in Educational Practice: Numeracy learning pack


Numeracy and society


Numeracy in education – the UK context


The following timeline presents key UK educational policies or developments relevant to numeracy in education.

  • 1959: Crowther Report
  • 1982: Cockcroft Report
  • 1988: National Curriculum for England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • 1994: Dearing Review
  • 1998: National Literacy Strategy
  • 1999: National Numeracy Strategy
  • 1999: Devolution for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
  • 2000: Curriculum 2000 Wales
  • 2000: The first national standards for adult literacy and numeracy published by QCA and DfEE (external link)
  • 2000: Key Skills (England and Wales)
  • 2006: National Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics (external link)
  • 2006: Wales first took part in PISA tests
  • 2008: Curriculum 2008 Wales
  • 2008: Skills framework for 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales
  • 2010: Essential Skills Wales
  • 2011: Revised professional standards for  Education Practitioners in Wales
  • 2013: National Reading and Numeracy Tests (Wales)
  • 2013: National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (Wales)
  • 2013: Professional Skills Tests in Literacy and Numeracy for ITT courses

Crowther Report 1959

Although the Crowther Report (1959) is the initial source of the term ‘numeracy’, a more down-to-earth view within the UK by the time the Cockcroft Committee reported in 1982 on what mathematics was required in further education (FE) and higher education (HE), employment and adult life generally within England and Wales. Cockcroft (1982, para. 39) proposed that being numerate ‘implied the possession of two attributes’.

  • The first of these is an ‘at-homeness’ with numbers and an ability to make use of mathematical skills which enable an individual to cope with the practical mathematical demands of his everyday life.
  • The second is the ability to have some appreciation and understanding of information which is presented in mathematical terms, for instance, in graphs, charts or tables or by reference to percentage increase or decrease.

Cockcroft Report 1982

Cockcroft’s ‘Foundation list of mathematical topics’ would go on to form the basis for the National Curriculum (NC) for Mathematics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, introduced following the Education Reform Act 1988 in an attempt to ‘raise standards consistently, and at least as quickly as they are rising in competitor countries’ (DES/WO, 1987, pp2–3). One of the key principles in developing the national curriculum was that:

. . . it would be underpinned by two aims – and echoing the 1944 statement – to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils, and to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. (House of Commons, 2009)

Cockcroft was also reporting at a time in the 1980s when an access movement promoting ‘second chance’ education was developing in the UK (Benn, 1997). Many would-be applicants to further and higher education and training needed support to meet mathematics and English language and literacy entry requirements. The resulting ‘access to mathematics’ courses tended to use the term ‘mathematics’ rather than ‘numeracy’ whereas in vocational education and training courses offered by FE colleges and other training providers, ‘numeracy’ often described the mathematics deemed necessary to support learners in pursuit of their primary aim of a vocational qualification (Coben, 2003). In the 1990s this became synonymous with the core skill ‘application of number’ (later Key Skills and most recently Essential Skills in Wales).

Dearing Review 1994

In 1993, the Secretary of State for Education invited Dearing to undertake a review of the National Curriculum and of the framework for assessing learners’ progress. Dearing identified as a result of consultations with teachers there was a ‘need to provide adequate time for teaching basic oracy, literacy and numeracy. As teachers argue strongly, the future success of children’s education depends upon their becoming literate and numerate’ (Dearing, 1994, para. 4.17). He went on to identify that other subject areas of the curriculum provided rich opportunities for the teaching of basic literacy and numeracy. This resulted in a recommendation that the first priority for the (new) discretionary time in Key Stages 1 to 3 was used to support work in the basics of literacy, oracy and numeracy.

Dearing also reported that he’d also received evidence from the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit on the lack of literacy and mathematical skills in young adults which would subsequently not allow them to ‘function confidently in a rapidly-changing world’ (Dearing, 1994, para 5.12).

National Numeracy Strategy 1999

Ways in which numeracy/mathematics was taught in the UK underwent huge changes during the 1990s and ‘numeracy’ tended to refer increasingly to the mathematics at the lower end of the Mathematics National Curriculum and delivery within primary schools. The National Numeracy Project (NNP) was introduced in 1996 in response to learners’ poor results in international comparative surveys and the National Numeracy Strategy (NNS) – Framework for teaching mathematics – was implemented in primary schools in England in 1999, a year after the National Literacy Strategy.

According to Brown (2002, p.33) however, the NNS took a rather narrow view of numeracy focusing on proficiency and ‘regarding numeracy as a culturally neutral and value-free set of autonomous skills’. On examination of the framework there is evidence of identifying and using these numeracy/mathematical skills in other subject areas but little mention of real life contexts.

The Moser Report 1999

The Moser Report in 1999 highlighted the high levels of adult illiteracy and innumeracy, comparing these statistics with other countries and suggesting links of low ability levels in literacy and numeracy to other social issues (Moser, 1999). Moser suggested that the cause of the problem lay in poor schooling and that many young people left school without basic skills. He reported that the National Strategies for Literacy and Numeracy were addressing this problem but that it would take time and, therefore, to tackle the issue with adults, recommended a National Strategy for Adult Basic Skills. This was implemented in 2000 with the launch of the first national standards for adult literacy and numeracy published by Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and Department for Education and Employment (DfEE).

Curriculum 2000

At the other end of the education spectrum, Curriculum 2000 saw the alignment of mathematics in Key Stages 1 and 2 with the National Numeracy Strategies (NNS) with particular reference to mental maths and number.

In 2001, a comparison of the school curricula across the four countries of the UK was made by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The following terms are used by the respective countries to describe the key/core skill in ‘numeracy’:

  • England – Application of Number
  • Wales – Mathematical skills
  • Northern Ireland – Economic awareness (noted as cross-curricular)
  • Scotland – Numeracy.

Additionally, government guidance on the NNS and later in the mathematics strand of the Key Stage 3 Strategy in secondary schools (DfES, 2001) did not always clearly differentiate between mathematics and numeracy, e.g. ‘a daily mathematics lesson will allow pupils to reach a high standard of numeracy (with) a high proportion of these lessons spent on numeracy’ (Reynolds, 1998, p.2). Whichever term is used, however, numeracy was seen as the mathematical foundation to be taught to all state-educated children, including those who will go on to specialise in mathematics (Coben, 2003). Within FE, the tendency was for ‘numeracy’, ‘basic skills’ or ‘basic mathematics to be used to denote lower levels of mathematics provision with mathematics’ reserved for the higher levels, while both are called ‘maths’ informally by learners and teachers (see Topic 2: Understanding numeracy).

Key Skills (England and Wales) 2000

The introduction of Key Skills in 2000 by The Department for Children, Schools and Families in England and the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills in Wales were as a response to concern from employers about lack of essential skills in young recruits and as part of the response to the 1996 Dearing Report on HE. They defined Key Skills as ‘a range of essential skills that underpin success in education, employment, lifelong learning and personal development’. Key Skills were separate qualifications involving a portfolio of evidence and an external examination and were often taken alongside vocational courses and A Levels; Levels 2–4 attracted UCAS points. Initially offered post-16, the key skills in application of number, communication and IT were then funded under Section 400 for delivery at Key Stage 4 and from 2001 were signposted in GCSE specifications. Schools and colleges were encouraged to offer key skills to all learners at the appropriate key skill level.

Scotland has a separate Core Skills qualification consisting of five areas one of which is numeracy. All learners at all levels must obtain qualifications in all five Core Skills if they wish to obtain a Scottish Group Award.  The new skills framework has been used to develop new units in Literacy and Numeracy (external link) which will be available at Scottish Curriculum Qualifications Framework (SCQF) Levels 3, 4 and 5 from 2013/14.

Equivalent relationships between the new Literacy and Numeracy Units and the current Core Skills and National Certificate Communication Units have been established (SQA).

The Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics 2006

The Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics in 2006 was developed using best practice seen since the implementation of the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. The message was that of raising standards. The structure of the Framework was based around strands and the objectives were presented, as previously, by year and stage but also across strands showing the progression in learning within each strand. The learning objectives cover the Foundation Stage to Year 6.

Curriculum 2008

The new Curriculum 2008 revised the national curriculum subject orders and made them relevant to the twenty-first century. There were differences of emphasis between the national curricula of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has an alternative approach with its Curriculum for Excellence (Educationscotland.gov.uk). While the skills of communication, number, thinking and ICT were statutory, the framework for 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales itself was non-statutory (Skills framework 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales, 2008).  At Key Stage 4 and post-16, the delivery of the key skills was seen as a means of accrediting the skills that underpin the revised curriculum, and evidence for portfolio assessment can be drawn from a range of curriculum areas including GCSEs (Welsh Assembly Government, 2008, p22). It was clearly outlined that all GCSEs would continue to provide explicit opportunities for candidates to develop their key skills. In Wales, they would be used in the new Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification (WBQ).

The national curriculum has been reviewed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland independently over the last few years and there is obviously greater diversification as each country’s government moves away from the UK’s central governance. In the next section, numeracy in education in Wales will be considered separately.

Activity 1.1

Compare the numeracy skills frameworks in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  1. Identify common aspects across the frameworks and consider why these appear across all regions.
  2. Are there any areas that only appear in one or two of the frameworks? Why do you think the other regions have not considered these as necessary?


Askew, M. (2001) British research into pedagogy in M. Askew & M. Brown (Eds.), Teaching and Learning Primary Numeracy: Policy, practice and effectiveness. A review of British research for the British Educational Research Association in conjunction with the British Society for Research in the Learning of Mathematics (pp. 44–49). Southwell: British Educational Research Association (BERA).

Askew, M., Bibby, T., & M. Brown (1997) Raising Attainment in Numeracy: Final Report. London: King’s College, University of London.

Brown, M. (2002) The Effectiveness of the National Numeracy Strategy: Evidence from the Leverhulme Numeracy Research Programme and other studies at King’s College London. London: King’s College London.

Cockcroft Committee (1982) Mathematics Counts: A Report into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools. London: HMSO.

Coben, D. (2003) Adult numeracy: review of research and literature. London: NRDC.

The Dearing Review (1994) The National Curriculum and its Assessment: Final Report London: School Curriculum and Assessment Authority 1994 HMSO.

Le Metais, J., Andrews, R., Johnson, R. Spielhofer, T. (2001) School Curriculum Differences across the UK. National Foundation for Educational Research.

Making the most of learning – Implementing the revised curriculum, (2008), Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, Welsh Assembly Government.

The National Curriculum, Fourth Report of Session 2008-9, (2009) The House of Commons, London, The Stationery Office Ltd. (accessed October 2013).

The Northern Ireland Curriculum, (2013) CCEA website available at www.nicurriculum.org.uk/ (accessed October 2013).

The Curriculum in Scotland, Scottish Government, available at www.educationscotland.gov.uk (accessed October 2013).

Skills framework for 3 to 19-year-olds in Wales, Welsh Government (2008) (accessed October 2013).

Useful links

Straker, A., Thompson, I. (1999) The National Numeracy Project – Issues in Teaching Numeracy in Primary Schools, pp39–48. Buckingham. Open University Press.

National Numeracy Strategy, (1999), Department for Education and Employment, Cambridge University Press.

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