In England adults engage with learning mathematics in various formal and informal educational situations. Further Education(FE) colleges and other training providers offer formal courses leading to qualifications, either as stand-alone coursesor as part of larger study programmes. For example, students on apprenticeship training programmes may be required to take a mathematics qualification but mathematical skills may be embedded within other study programmes without being formally assessed.The voluntary and community sector provide both qualification courses and informal learning opportunities.

The definition of an adult learner in England has been variable, due to boundaries within the education system that have been subject to change.The responsibility for the funding of education for different age groups (and the level of funding provided) has often been divided between government departments. Historically a distinction was made at age 21 years but the most recent funding divisionshaveseparated students aged 16-18 years from those aged 19+ years. Responsibility for 16-18’s has remained with the Department of Education whilst the Department of Business Innovation and Skills has overseen provision for students aged 19+. This has led to a distinction between 16-18 education and 19+, with the latter being considered as adult education.The recent extension of compulsory education from age 16 to age 18 has reinforced this boundary as a natural separation point. The amalgamation of the two government departments in 2016 may however herald a more consistent approach in the future.

Adults may study for a Functional Mathematics qualification, which is available at five different levels (Entry 1, Entry 2, Entry 3, Level 1, Level 2)or take a qualification such as the General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE) which is the Level 2 qualification normally taken in school at age 16 years. The difference between these two qualifications is significant. Functional mathematics focuses on the application of mathematics within a range of contexts and is intended to equip students with the appropriate skills for life and work. The GCSE qualification is largely based on knowledge acquisition. A ‘good’ grade in GCSE Mathematics (i.e. grade C or above) iswidely viewed as an acceptable minimum attainment standard at age 16 years and this often acts as a ‘gatekeeper’ for higher study or career entry.Recent changes to the GCSE specifications have introduced a more demanding specification and a new grading system but an equivalent ‘good’ grade in the new system is still regarded as a minimum acceptable standard.

Recent policy changesmake it compulsory for students aged 16-18 years without a GCSE grade C in mathematics to continue with mathematics and repeat the GCSE examination (in preference to studying for an alternative mathematics qualification). This reinforces the value of the GCSE qualification in society and suggests that alternative qualifications such as Functional Mathematics do not have the same status. For adults this creates a dilemma between studying for a qualification that focuses on developing useful mathematical skills and one that is widely recognised and valued in society.

Despite adults taking similar mathematics qualifications to 16-18’s, some inherent traditions of pedagogy may be evident in courses for more mature adults. This arises from the traditions of androgogy in adult education rather than the pedagogies of vocational learning or formal academic education.

The division and lack of parity between qualifications that focus onthe application of mathematics,compared to those that are knowledge based, has been an issue for many years in England. This reflects a deeper division between academic, vocational and adult learning. There have also been significant divisions between academic mathematics and the notion of an applied mathematics or mathematical literacy that is useful for life and work. Within this debate the term numeracy has been introduced and redefined several times. For example, in the Crowther report (1959), numeracy was referred to as the counterpart of literacy and an essential skill but in the Cockcroft report (1982) numeracy was seen as the skills required by adultsto cope with the mathematical demands of everyday life. The need to better define these terms and the skills they describe has been problematic (See Coben, 2003; Kaye, 2015).

Concerns about the mathematics skills of adults have been raised repeatedly by employers, government and other agencies over many years.Evidence of the need for adults to develop better mathematics or numeracy skills was first presented in two reports by ALBSSU (1987, 1989) showing how a quarter of school leavers had basic skills deficits. The influential Moser report (1999) reinforced the argument by presenting evidence of significant skills problems in the adult population for mathematics.

This led to wide reaching reforms in adult basic education and a comprehensive Skills for Life Strategy (2001-2011) including the introduction of a core curriculum for Adult Numeracy that remains influential over current approaches to teaching mathematics to adults. Based on this core curriculum, new qualifications in the form of national tests in Adult Numeracy were introduced. Specialist teaching qualifications for adult numeracy teachers, teaching materials and a national research and development centre (NRDC) were developed. Despite this sustained attempt to improve adult numeracy skills,over a period of 10 years there was actually no significant improvement (BIS, 2011). The need to develop the mathematical skills that enable people to cope with life was raised again (DfES, 2005) and this led to the development of the Functional Mathematics qualifications.

The Skills for Life Initiative was the most wide ranging and influential reform with an impact on pedagogy, despite the lack of any significant measureable improvement nationally in adults’ numeracy skills. Although some of this legacy remains, the policy agenda has shifted over the last few years and the prominence of adult numeracy has declined. Funding for adult education generally has been reduced and is no longer a government priority.

Further Education also has a critical shortage of mathematics teachers. Although adult numeracy teachers in Further Education were at one time required to have a general teaching qualification and a specialist qualification for adult numeracy teaching, recent de-regulation means that these requirements are no longer in place. Individual providers make their own choices about the qualifications and training for adult mathematics or numeracy teachers.

The government has commissioned some short-term research and reviews through the Employment and Training Foundation (ETF) and several reports are available on their website with relevance for adult mathematics. These include reports on the issues for mathematics teaching in Further Education and a review of the functional mathematics standards. The ETF also provide professional development modules for teachers and events to support teachers. In addition, there are independent projects such as Citizen Maths, which aims to provide innovative materials and methods of engaging adults with mathematics, plus work byorganisations such as National Numeracy, Learning Unlimited and the Learning and Work Institute (previously NIACE).


ALBSU. (1987). Literacy, Numeracy and Adults. London: Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit.

ALBSU. (1989). A nation’s neglect. London: Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit.

BIS. (2011). Skills for Life Survey: Headline Findings (HMSO Ed.). London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Coben, D. (2003). Adult numeracy: review of research and related literature. London: NRDC.

Cockcroft, W. H. (1982). Mathematics Counts: Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Teaching of Mathematics in Schools. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Crowther, G. (1959). 15 to 18: a report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (Vol. 1). London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

DfEE. (2001). Skills for Life: The National Strategy for Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy Skills. London: Department for Education and Employment.

DfES. (2005). 14-19 Education and Skills. London: HMSO.

Kaye, D. (2015) What do I teach? Mathematics, Numeracy or Maths. In Hector-Mason, A. and Beeli-

Zimmermann, S. (Eds) Adults Learning Mathematics –inside and outside the classroom. Proceedings of the 21st International Conference of Adults Learning Mathematics: A Research Forum (ALM). Bern University, Bern Open Publishing (BOP).

Moser, C. (1999). Improving Literacy and Numeracy: A Fresh Start. London: Department for Education and Employment.


Citizen Maths https://www.citizenmaths.com

Employment and Training Foundation http://www.et-foundation.co.uk

Learning and Work Institute  http://www.learningandwork.org.uk

Learning Unlimitedhttp://www.learningunlimited.co

National Numeracy http://www.nationalnumeracy.org.uk

National Research and Development Centre http://www.nrdc.org.uk