Multiply – the Government’s new multi-year adult numeracy programme to be launched in the Autumn – aims to address the UK's maths crisis. In this blog, whilst welcoming the additional funding and commitment to levelling up adult education, Linus Pardoe sets out three challenges that the programme needs to be overcome to make the money count.
During a tumultuous time for policy and politics, it has passed many by that the Government’s new multi-year adult numeracy programme – Multiply – has been pushed back into the Autumn, having originally been slated for launch in the Spring.
Announced at last year’s Spending Review, Multiply is a targeted intervention aimed at supporting adults who lack basic numeracy capabilities.
Here at the SMF we spend a good deal of time banging the drum for increasing public spending on adult education, so it’s difficult to be critical when a penny-counting Chancellor writes a £559 million cheque for adult skills provision. And whilst it is not the restoration of lost adult education budgets that many would like to see – real-terms spending on adult education by 2024/25 will still be 25% lower than 2010/11 levels according to the IFS – Multiply has generally been welcomed by campaigners.
The stakes are high for Multiply. An estimated 16 million people in work possess low numeracy skills according to Pro Bono Economics research. Data from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills suggests 24% of adults in England are at or below Level 1 in maths – i.e. they would be eligible for Multiply – equating to around 8.2 million people in the labour force. As Figure 1 shows, adult numeracy capabilities in England are worse than in many European countries, and we lag far behind the Scandinavian states and some post-Soviet countries. There are significant personal, societal and economic costs to this “mathematics crisis”, including an estimated £25bn in lost earnings each year, adverse mental health, and reduced financial literacy.
The programme pledges to “equip hundreds of thousands of adults with functional numeracy skills to improve their employment prospects”. It will be funded via the new Shared Prosperity Fund. Adults who do not have a Level 2 in maths (equivalent of a GCSE grade C/4) will be eligible. Local areas will be able to submit their own local investment plans, and we know that:
- £270 million will be allocated to mayoral combined authorities and upper tier/unitary authorities in England between 2022-2025. (Initial allocations)
- £160 million will be allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
- The remaining £129 million will be spent on programme administrative costs and a new online platform.
We should be clear that the process whereby maths skills influence future education and earnings outcomes is set in motion early in childhood. So if the Government is to complete its mission to level up mathematics and eliminate innumeracy – a stated objective in the Levelling Up White Paper – considerable attention and resources will need to be given to improving maths capabilities in the poorest performing schools and areas. Nevertheless, downstream programmes for older people have the potential to help adults today and there is plenty of evidence that adult education begets a virtuous cycle, with children benefitting from their parents’ participation in later-life education. As someone who wants Multiply to succeed, I’m going to use the remainder of this blog to set out three challenges that the programme faces.
Clarity in programme ambition and evaluation
The Government says “hundreds of thousands” will benefit from Multiply, but around one in four in the workforce will be eligible. Who is the Government targeting? The short answer is: whoever local and combined authorities decide to make the focus of their interventions.
On the one hand, it makes good sense to devolve funding and allow local decision-makers to design programmes that match the skills needs of their area. For example, the Government is welcoming investment plans for courses aimed at care leavers and the unemployed.
On the other hand, this makes the overall programme impact much harder to evaluate at the national level, because it will contain potentially hundreds of different individual courses delivered locally. Many of these courses will be focused on informal training, rather than equipping adults with a formal qualification, making measurement all the more tricky. And it seems unrealistic that each individual local area – likely running multiple programmes – will undertake a robust evaluation. Instead, local areas will provide data to central government to assess the aggregate impact of Multiply. Does this run the risk that local failures could be glossed over? Equally worrying, if there are successful interventions, we might not know what worked, why and whether similar programmes could be replicated elsewhere.
Evidence of success is also easier to claim when there is ambiguity over expected outcomes. For Multiply, the Government wants to see:
- More adults achieving maths qualifications and increased participation in numeracy courses
- Improved labour market outcomes
- Increased adult numeracy across the population
These are sensible measures, but without a clear sense of scale it is hard to know how ambitious they are. Is a 1% population-level increase in adult numeracy a good result for a £560 million spend? Would it have been better to funnel that money into the adult education budget and let providers choose how best to spend it? For instance, it may be the case that some local areas have a bigger problem with illiteracy.
What role for colleges and other adult education providers?
Since Multiply targets adults without a GCSE C/4 in maths, further education (FE) providers are likely to play an important – if currently undefined – role in delivering local interventions. For some colleges, this will be a welcome injection of cash. However, funding for the programme is allocated to local areas and ringfenced for programme delivery. That means that Multiply does little to help the long-term financial viability of FE institutions. It also further fragments adult education funding, something that the Government has acknowledged as in need of “simplifying”.
What’s more, Multiply interventions cannot replace or duplicate existing maths courses funded through the Adult Education Budget. Whilst the programme’s ambition to create innovative courses is appealing, could this not also be an opportunity to expand existing successful courses and secure their funding for the next few years?
A final issue for FE institutions is staffing. Plausibly, teachers will need to be recruited specifically for Multiply – and quickly too, if courses are to be offered by the autumn. This could be a considerable challenge, given that the FE sector is already facing historic staff shortages.
Overcoming maths anxiety
Finally, Multiply will need to be designed and implemented in a way that engages with adults experiencing a common disincentive to improve numeracy skills: maths anxiety. If you felt a sense of nervousness, panic, fear or any other negative emotion when faced with a maths problem at school, you could have experienced “maths anxiety”. You wouldn’t be alone: a 2019 study of 1,700 primary and secondary schoolchildren found one in ten experienced maths anxiety.
Maths anxiety remains into adulthood: estimates of the general population suggest that 17% have high levels of maths anxiety. Researchers examining 84 studies have concluded that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between maths anxiety and performance at school, negatively influencing labour market outcomes. A US-based study has found that those with maths anxiety are less likely to select into a STEM career and maths anxiety is more common amongst those with poorer school performance.
One reason why addressing maths anxiety matters for Multiply is the risk that those who already have a negative experience with numeracy will be less likely to take part in a course, compared to those ‘closer’ to participation. A useful comparative example of this is the government’s Work Programme (2011-2017). A recent review found that Work Programme participants tended to be more likely to spend time in employment than those who didn’t participate, but several studies have found that providers running the programme tended to ‘cream’ those closest to the labour market whilst ‘parking’ those who were hardest to help into work. We know from past SMF research that a similar effect exists for adult education – being better educated is a positive determinant of participation in a course or training.
There are two aspects to this problem. The first is about communication. Plenty can be learned from the success of campaigns aimed at socialising conversations about and acting on mental ill health, especially amongst those demographics who may be more reluctant to do so. Multiply’s branding and messaging should attend to the issue that many who the programme will be open to will be anxious or embarrassed about their maths abilities.
The second problem is about overcoming maths anxiety amongst participants. Multiply could take the challenge head on and provide direct resources and support to education providers and participants. For instance, there is some evidence from a trial that expressive writing – like jotting down what is worrying the student – can help to reduce anxiety. If Multiply is to be delivered through the FE system, institutions like colleges may have some strong practitioner knowledge on what works to help students overcome maths anxiety. If the Government emphasises delivery through an online tool, it should make resources and help available wherever possible so learners with maths anxiety do not disengaged or – worse still – feel put off further from improving their numeracy skills.
An opportunity too good to squander
This blog reflects the views of a critical friend. Multiply is a welcome and largely well-designed initiative that could make a genuine contribution to addressing the UK’s maths crisis. But after a decade of underfunding, the arrival of new money into the adult education system only amplifies the importance of spending that money well and understanding its impact.
 The low numeracy category refers to those individuals who have a GCSE or below (including no qualifications) in mathematics.
 Much of the data on basic numeracy skills is drawn from the 2011 Skills for Life Survey and it is unclear whether the picture has improved or worsened over the last decade.