Cockcroft - Mathematics Counts, 1982

Submitted by Maggie Harnew on Tue, 2011-02-15 21:50

This is one of many Harvard references to useful online references for the Level 5 Maths ADTLLS, Developing Role of Numeracy / History of Mathematics essay. (Part of Module 1: Approaches to Mathematics learning and teaching). The retrieval date is when I first used it.

Cockcroft, W. (1982), Mathematics counts: report of the Committee of Inquiry into the teaching of mathematics in schools. London: HMSO. Retrieved on 31 December 2008 from

Here’s how I used the reference in my essay:
Twenty years later, Cockcroft, in ‘Mathematics counts’ (1982), a report into the teaching of mathematics in schools, considered Crowther’s original definition of numeracy and concluded that it now [in 1982] had quite a different meaning.

‘The association with science is no longer present and the level of mathematical understanding to which the words refer is much lower’. (1982, 2:37)

He went on to state that being ‘numerate’ goes beyond the ability to do arithmetic and must also include using such skills in everyday practical situations. Interpreting graphical material and the usefulness of mathematics as a communication tool were also stressed: ‘…mathematics provides a means of communication which is powerful, concise and unambiguous… ’ . Indeed, communication was given as ‘the principal reason for teaching mathematics to all children’. (Cockcroft, 1982, 1:3)

Cockcroft devoted several chapters of his report to discussion of adults’ mathematics needs out of school. He noted that most employers were satisfied with the skills of school leavers and that, overall, employers most valued the ability to calculate mentally. Interestingly the importance of mental maths at work is reiterated more than 20 years later in research by both Hudson (2007, p10:5.3.1) and the Confederation for British Industry (2006, p6).

A small research project commissioned by Cockcroft to inform his report – later verified by a much larger Gallup poll (Sewell, 1981, cited in Cockcroft) – confirmed that maths anxiety impacted on all social groups and educational classes.

‘The extent to which the need to undertake even an apparently simple and straightforward piece of mathematics could induce feelings of anxiety, helplessness, fear and even guilt in some of those interviewed was, perhaps, the most striking feature of the study.’ (Cockcroft, 1982, 2:20).

The report also recognised that motivation, once in employment, was a major factor in boosting employees’ numeracy skills. Nonetheless, it was also clear that lack of mathematical ability had prevented some from applying for jobs or from following training courses. (Cockcroft, 1982, 3:48 and 2:30)

Specific skill deficiencies earmarked by Cockcroft included misunderstanding percentages, improper use of calculators, the inability to read charts and timetables and a lack of understanding of metric and Imperial measures (1982, 2:19-30). Interestingly, map reading was considered ‘quite good’; one wonders whether a similar survey today, with the wide use of satellite mapping systems, would produce the same results.

Thus the beginnings of numeracy, as we know it today – i.e. relating mathematics to everyday life and work – arose from Cockcroft’s highly influential report. He certainly recognised the importance of relating mathematics to everyday life: ‘Our concern is that those who set out to make their pupils ‘numerate’ should pay attention to the wider aspects of numeracy and not be content merely to develop the skills of computation’. (1982, 2:39)

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