One Page: Adding in numeracy

Ian Merrill
March 19, 2024

Most months, my One Page pieces have literacy at their heart. This is not surprising. Christopher Morgan came up with the idea of a scheme for people in prison who could read to mentor others who could not. He knew from his friend Tom Shannon how many people struggled to read, including their precious, private letters from home.


Christopher appreciated that traditional school lessons do not work for all, and that some do not even get the chance of formal education. He thought learning from a peer, someone who understands what life in prison is like, could be different, and in time could benefit both people. Christopher Morgan’s idea evolved into what is now Shannon Trust, and regular followers of our work know what a difference reading makes to the lives of so many.


In the last few years, we have realised how many people who have difficulty reading also struggle with basic maths. In late 2022, YouGov conducted a poll for the charity National Numeracy. This showed that less than a quarter of the working age population (24%) has a numeracy level equivalent to a GCSE pass. Almost a fifth of adults (18%) said maths and numbers made them nervous. The statistics for people in prison are even starker. Around two thirds have 'entry level' maths skills, meaning their numeracy level is below that expected of a child leaving primary school.


For prison leavers and others in the community, poor numeracy skills and a lack of confidence with maths generally makes it harder to find work, or limit the options available. And perhaps more importantly, it makes some daily tasks more challenging. Managing spending is a good example. Budgeting gets even harder when you miscalculate and run-over, or are afraid to look at bills because they are too hard to follow.


When Bob Blackman MP spoke in Parliament about maths education, he explained how someone with low numeracy skills is vulnerable to debt, fraud, financial exclusion or exploitation and unemployment. Recently, I heard about a young mother puzzling over numerical instructions on the side of a medicine box, understandably terrified of giving her child the wrong dose.

We felt we could draw on Shannon Trust’s experience of helping adults learn to read.


In January, we launched a new numeracy programme, Count Me In. It follows the same principles as our reading programme. We have developed a series of books for learners to work through with a peer mentor, one to one, in short regular sessions. Everything goes at the learner’s pace. One piece of learning builds up to the next as learners get more confident. There are no exams, targets or classrooms, and learners can go back over the material as many times as they like.


Of course, it is early days, but I believe that our peer led approach to numeracy will help people, in prisons and in the community, become more familiar with numbers and increase their confidence in dealing with life.


At Shannon Trust, we believe in rehabilitation and people’s capacity to develop.


We know the positive impact that understanding numbers and learning to do basic maths can have. It can be the way into work, feeling valued for your contribution, reducing the chances of reoffending. It can be the start of a path to more studying, whether for a particular goal or for the sake of learning itself.


And to me, most importantly, feeling a bit more confident with numbers helps in day to day life. Whether that is with budgeting, understanding measurements, and bus or train times, and sense checking what you are being charged. It can mean you are able to support children or grandchildren with their homework, and perhaps feel a bit better about yourself. And it should help you feel less afraid of misunderstanding dosage instructions on the side of a medicine box.


It is time, therefore, to Count Me in.


Please get in touch if anything I have written resonates with you; whether you agree, disagree or you have a suggestion for how we can improve what we do.

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