Maths difficulties ‘adding to debt woes’

THE level of trouble Irish adults are having with basic maths could be a major factor in mortgage and other debt problems crippling Irish families, according to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS).

Research by the National Adult Literacy Agency revealed that 40% of Irish adults have difficulty with everyday maths calculations, with the biggest problems among people who left school early and men performing slightly better than women. Four-out-of-ten of the 1,000 adults answered incorrectly on half or all the six questions asked, which included two from the primary school curriculum and four sums people might need to make everyday.

MABS has seen a 10% rise in clients in the first half of 2010. About two-thirds of its new clients are social welfare recipients or rely on support from the Health Service Executive, and more than half of its 19,000 new clients last year were aged between 26 and 40.

Personal loans were the biggest single category of debt that people sought help and advice from MABS with, followed by utility bills, credit cards and mortgages, hire purchase loans, money lenders, overdrafts and rent. A MABS spokesman said the figures raise questions about people who entered into financial agreements in the past.

“You would have to wonder how well they understood what they were getting into, particularly if they had serious trouble understanding the figures involved. There wasn’t a lot of due care and attention from the credit industry to these kind of matters up to relatively recently,” he said.

“Many of the people we meet were signed up to agreements they really didn’t understand. The small-print is difficult enough for most of us and working out what is the best product can prove quite taxing for the majority of the population, so you can imagine the problems someone with numeracy difficulties would have to submit all those forms,” the MABS spokesman said.

Research at the University of Limerick earlier this year showed that half of second- level teachers teaching maths classes do not have it as their main degree subject from college. But while the first set of Leaving Certificate results for the new second- level Project Maths curriculum at 24 schools last month showed improved grades and increased take-up of higher- level maths, research suggests the key to tackling numeracy problems is when children are in primary school.

Dr Joseph Travers, head of special education at St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra, published research this year showing that pupils at disadvantaged schools were likely to have access to less support for maths difficulties – even though they have higher proportions of children with learning difficulties and more staff to give supports.

“For long-term solutions to address the risk of poor maths achievement in later life, early intervention is needed. There is evidence of big differences between children even in junior infants, with some having the maths ability of a six-year-old but others operate at the level of a three-year-old,” he said.


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