Skilling numeracy practitioners

19 August 2013

Opinion piece

By Howard Salkow

Fine Print

August 2013

There is nothing new that poor numeracy skills are prevalent among children and adults with headlines in countries like Australia and the UK providing constant reminders.

“Poor numeracy is a problem we must tackle now”, or “Poor numeracy is affecting the life chances of children and adults alike” invariably catch the reader’s attention. The latter is clearly identified in the UK.

Writing in The Guardian, Belinda Vernon, the head of research at New Philanthropy Capital (numeracy skills adults, 2010), says much of the commentary on numeracy skills today focuses on the below-par standards achieved by children in schools, but there is little attention given to the alarming consequences of poor maths teaching on adults.

“In England, one adult in five is innumerate. These adults can’t work out their change when they go shopping, or help their children with homework.

“And they are twice as likely to be unemployed as people who are numerate. This is the shameful legacy of a system that provides free education to all children from the age of five to at least 16,” she writes.

To illustrate how this impacts business in this country, the Australian Industry Group’s National Workforce Literacy Project in 2010 found that 45 per cent of employers identified labourers and process workers as those most affected by low level literacy and numeracy and that the low skills were affecting their bottom line.

The need for all to be both numerate and literate is the motivation behind the Australian government’s 2012-22 National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults. Clearly, the delivery of this program depends on appropriately skilled practitioners. But there is a nagging suspicion that VET practitioners are not well equipped to deliver the numeracy aspect of foundation skills.

To better understand this growing concern, Seeking the N in LLN, a report released by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), examines the capacity of the VET workforce to address workplace numeracy skills needs.
The authors, Tina Berghella and John Molenaar, focused on the process manufacturing industry, one that relies heavily on numeracy proficiency of its semi-skilled workers. And although limited in scope, the questions raised are likely to have broad relevance.

The VET practitioners’ level of experience, their teaching qualifications and to what extent they value the importance of numeracy skills of working-aged Australians in the said industry, heads the list of questions.

The critical issue is the capacity of VET to address the numeracy skills needs of Australian workers.

Using qualitative (self-assessments, focus groups and interviews) and quantitative (numeracy assessments) approaches, 44 VET practitioners from Melbourne and Sydney, who deliver workplace-based training, were involved.

Of those, 20 self-identified as Language, Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) specialists, with the remainder vocational specialists. In this study, the term VET practitioner refers to LLN and vocational specialists collectively.

Of the participants involved in this study, none had a specialist adult numeracy training qualification. This was unsurprising given the only qualification available is a Graduate Certificate in Adult Numeracy Training, which is offered by the University of Technology, Sydney; and the take-up of this course is low.

However, six participants had an adult training specialisation that included a numeracy component: one with a Vocational Graduate Certificate in Adult Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practice; and another with an Advanced Diploma of Language, Literacy and Numeracy Practice in VET.

The research found that in general, the participants had limited experience in delivering workplace numeracy training.

These findings raise a concern within the process manufacturing industry. Without an appropriately skilled and experienced VET workforce – skilled in the identification and delivery of numeracy skills – the VET sector cannot effectively respond to the numeracy demands of the workplace.

With this in mind, the authors argue that if the importance of workplace numeracy skills is under-represented, there will not only be a shortage of workplace numeracy specialists, but VET practitioners currently delivering in the workplace will provide inadequate numeracy support.

The dearth of LLN programs focusing on numeracy skills for learners and LLN specialists not highly skilled in numeracy, only adds to this growing problem. Innovation and Business Skills Australia (IBSA) found that LLN specialists often lack the capacity to contribute to the development of numeracy skills of workers.

And a 2006 study of WELL (Workplace English Language and Literacy Program) practitioners found they were recruited for their language and literacy specialisations, not numeracy, with few WELL practitioners being numeracy specialists (Berghella et al 2006a).

Berghella and Molenaar believe there is a mismatch between what is required to address numeracy skills needs in the process manufacturing industry, and the current capacity of VET practitioners in terms of their understanding of numeracy requirements, their qualifications, skills and experience. It is likely that this issue goes beyond the process manufacturing industry.

They add that until now, there has been limited attention focused on the workplace numeracy training capabilities of the VET workforce.

And the assumption that LLN specialists are numeracy specialists, has limited our understanding of VET capacity in this area.

In looking at overseas models, the authors identified the adult numeracy specialist qualifications in the UK’s Skills for Life Program (launched March 2001) where there is a separate diploma level qualification for each specialty area. They also note that VET practitioners seeking to qualify as an adult numeracy specialist must undertake a numeracy proficiency entry test.

However, while the aforementioned programs have boosted skills, they have been less successful in tackling poor numeracy.

In her Guardian article, Vernon says “in fairness, the UK Government has recognised the need to improve adult skills, focused attention on the problem and established programs such as Skills for Life, Employability Skills Programs and Train to Gain.”

She concludes by saying what’s needed is a National Numeracy Trust on similar lines to the National Literacy Trust. This would foster more positive attitudes to maths, and promote initiatives to improve how maths is taught and increase numeracy in adults and children.

According to National Numeracy (, an independent UK charity that focuses on adults and children with low levels of numeracy, there are a number of reasons why numeracy may have taken a back seat to literacy:

  • Intuitively literacy would seem to be more important – you need to be able to read and write to communicate and to access other subjects. The equivalent fundamental importance of maths is often missed;
  • The notion of reading for pleasure is easily understood – and literacy opens up the glories of literature. Maths rarely has the same emotional pull;
  • Numeracy and maths have long had an image problem, traditionally bringing to mind eccentric academics with a tenuous relationship with the outside world;
  • Literacy is often easier for parents to engage with. Many are not confident with their own maths and feel baffled by new approaches to the subject;
  • It is so easy to get put off maths early and convince yourself that it is something you ‘can’t do’; and
  • People don’t know how to go about improving their numeracy.

In Australia, there is much anticipation with the launch of the National Foundation Skills Strategy for Adults.

The strategy, which has been endorsed by state and territory governments, highlights that jobs of the future will increasingly be highly skilled and it’s imperative that more Australians are able to access quality training to improve their LLN skills.

A major priority is to enhance the quality of foundation skills training on offer and to build the workforce that delivers the training.

But its effectiveness will be under much scrutiny and there is still the over-riding issue that we must have qualified and experienced adult numeracy specialists to reach any of these goals.


A copy of the publication, Seeking the N in LLN is available at: