Doing the maths - Too many without life’s skills

AN individual’s ability to perform simple calculations, and to read and write to a functional level by and large defines their place in the modern world.

Of course there are exceptions but someone who struggles with basic arithmetic or literacy will have far fewer options about how they make a living than someone who is proficient in basic mathematics, reading and writing. They will be far more vulnerable to life’s misadventures – and parasites – than they need to be.

Just as education remains the greatest empowering force, an inadequate education in the basic skills of doing business, of organising life’s simple needs, even communicating, condemns too many people, and probably their dependants too, to a life less rewarding than it might be. In this context, yesterday’s announcement from the National Adult Literary Agency that something approaching half – 40% – of Irish adults have difficulty with everyday maths is startling.

It is especially startling in the context of the recent statements from companies considering establishing or expanding hi-tech businesses in Ireland, suggesting that we need to improve the standard of our maths and science graduates if we want to be as attractive to investors as we once were. After all, there’s no point in asking someone to work on encryption systems if they can’t work out the price of three pints, a half one and a bag of roasted peanuts without using a calculator.

How can this be in 2010 in what is still one of the world’s richest countries? How can this be, despite all the shortcomings, in a country that spends billions on education each and every year?

Is it that these individuals did not bother to avail of educational opportunities; is it that they found that system impenetrable or did they leave the system far too early? Is it that there is some cultural resistance to the idea of education and the lifestyle associated with getting the best from our schools?

Of course there are a range of issues, some of which are more readily resolved that others. One of the recurring themes in maths education is the incongruity that almost half of those teaching maths at second level do not have a primary qualification in the subject. That can be easily resolved.

This is not just an education issue as the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) pointed out yesterday, it is an exploitation one. MABS said that a considerable number of their new clients were in difficulty because they had entered credit agreements they plainly did not understand fully because they did not have the maths skills to do so. This must have been, in at least a number of cases, obvious to the banks who provided the credit but yet they advanced the money. This suggests that the fine line between sharp practice and exploitation has been crossed. Again.

We are faced with so many daunting problems that we can no longer rely on Government to resolve all of them. Right now there are around 450,000 people without work in this small country and some of them have inadequate reading or maths skills.

Equally, there are very many people, employed or otherwise, who could teach basic reading and maths on a voluntary basis. The organisational structure already exists through various local literacy and maths programmes. It may not be an idea robust enough to survive the cynicism of our times but it is one that could make a profound difference to a great many individuals and, in time, this battered and struggling society.


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