The government-backed survey, published yesterday, found Britons struggled to perform tasks such as multiplying 6 by 21 and subtracting 1.78 from 5. Only one in five British adults managed to answer all 12 questions correctly, compared with almost half those tested in Japan, which topped the table. The UK also lagged behind France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Australia.
The study, commissioned by the Basic Skills Agency, revealed Britons were more likely than adults in other countries to flee at the very thought of a maths test. Out of a representative sample asked to complete the pen and paper tasks in each country, one in eight in the UK refused even to look at the tests. Elsewhere, virtually all those asked to take part did so.
Evidence that the British are poor at maths comes a week after another international study showed the nation is also falling behind badly on literacy standards. Research in 14 countries by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed almost half of adults in the UK lack the literacy skills needed to cope with life, such as understanding a bus timetable.
Both main political parties are vying to put higher basic skills standards at the centre of their election campaigns. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, will announce initiatives to boost literacy and numeracy levels among recent school leavers later this month, while Labour will unveil details of plans to improve primary pupils' reading skills.
The Basic Skills Agency numeracy study was accompanied by research showing how poor maths skills can damage employment prospects.
Academics at London's City University who have been monitoring the lives of 1,700 people born in 1958, found just under a quarter had "very low numeracy skills", making everyday tasks difficult. Men with poor numeracy were more prone to unemployment, while women were more likely to be in part-time jobs.
As Mrs Shephard pledged to continue the Government's "battle to improve the basics", Labour's Education spokesman David Blunkett said: "This shows once again that we are lagging behind our economic competitors on standards vital to the success of our economy."
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