Numeracy, literacy and digital fluency – the skills for modern society, work and life

Equipping our young people with the core skills of numeracy, literacy and digital fluency is vital, but actually we’d all benefit from upping our game in these life-critical skills. Find out how AQA’s research into new ideas and thinking for alternatives to GCSE resits resulted in a proposal that could benefit everyone.

AQA is best known as an exam board, but what you might not know is that we’re also an education charity. That means we want to help every student go as far as their talents and perseverance will take them. To do this, we re-invest our income into analysis and research, as well as creating innovative new products to improve education for everyone.

One area that regularly gets our attention from a policy perspective is resits.

Of course we’re not alone, and with the summer exam series just around the corner the continuation of this evergreen debate is not far away. With our exam board hat on, we know there are great qualifications and assessments out there, but we can also see that repeated resits aren’t always a good experience for our young people.

When our policy team researched the issue further, it became clear to us that when it comes to alternatives to GCSE resits, people have been looking in the wrong place.

Because while maths GCSE is brilliant at what it’s designed for, what we actually need is not a test of maths, but a test of numeracy. Being numerate includes being able to understand and make good decisions about financial products, manage budgets, and make sense of tables, charts and basic statistics.

So what we’re really talking about is the sort of numeracy needed in life – like understanding compound interest for savings, or debt, or even simply knowing if you’ve been short-changed when you pay for your shopping.

Similarly, when we looked at English, it was clear that it’s a different skill that needs to be mastered – literacy. Literacy is a suite of skills and knowledge that enables people to understand written information and to communicate clearly and persuasively both orally and in writing.

Numeracy and literacy stand out, then, as core skills, life skills – they are effectively your passport to modern society, work and life. And there are numerous statistics that back up just how important it is to master these skills – not just for our young people, but also the nation in general. England is one of the least numerate countries in the developed world, with more than 8 million adults having lower numeracy than a 9-year-old. Some estimates suggest that low levels of numeracy cost the UK over £20bn.

England is also the only country where the older population out-perform their younger counterparts in the PIACC survey of adult skills: while the general trend in OECD nations is for younger generations to have better skills than their parents’ generation, it’s not the case in England.

Through our policy research we also identified a third core skill: digital fluency. Digital fluency is much more than reading and writing online, or using the latest technology. With the dominance of social media, being digitally literate not only means being able to access and read online content, but also knowing how to navigate it safely, including cyber awareness and cyber safety.

Last autumn, we published a report of our research looking at these three core skills that every young person needs to thrive in their adult life, and a fundamental part of the report was a proposal for new assessments in each.

We’re currently working on a prototype for a new numeracy assessment – with literacy and digital fluency to follow.

Our thinking is that this new assessment should be similar to a driving test: something that is well understood and accepted as the right measure of what it means to be competent in that particular skill. The assessment will be fully digital and should be something that is on-demand, when-ready, and which is all about those numeracy ‘must-haves’ that you need for everyday life.

We also think it should be universal and available to everyone – because we all need to make sure our numeracy skills are up to scratch.

We’ve set up an expert steering group to help us develop it – a real ‘who’s who’ of top education and numeracy voices – and were delighted to have featured in an article by Polly Toynbee at The Guardian 

We’re very excited to hear the ideas of the group, and also from the teachers we’re talking to across a number of education settings to make sure they have a voice in this new assessment. We’ll be unveiling a prototype of the assessment in the autumn which we’ll trial in schools and colleges.

So the next time media coverage inevitably turns to exams, the new numeracy assessment will add a great new talking point into the conversation – and not just about resits, but also offering a wider practical application to improve the nation’s numeracy skills.

To find out more, you can have a look at the blogs on our AQi site, or if you’re interested from a policy perspective you can get in touch with our team: [email protected]

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