Chapter 3. Numeracy skills are not as good as literacy skills in Australia

Australians have among the best literacy skills compared with other countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). At the same time, their performance in numeracy is only average and there is evidence suggesting that numeracy skills have been declining in recent years. Mathematics performances among students in secondary education could usefully be improved. But this chapter also points to a significant gender difference in numeracy performance, with women scoring lower than men and being underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) occupations. Policies to attract and retain more women in the STEM workforce would help to reduce occupational segmentation in the labour force and improve gender equity in labour market outcomes. 1


Characteristics of adults with low numeracy skills

Around three million Australians have low numeracy skills

Australians have among the best literacy skills across countries participating in the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), however, their performance in numeracy is average (see Figure 3.1). One Australian in five performs below Level 2 in numeracy, which means that around three million Australians struggle with the numerical reasoning necessary to cope with everyday situations (such as reading a petrol gauge). While many other countries are doing better in literacy than in numeracy, the difference between literacy and numeracy scores is not nearly as significant as in Australia. In Australia, 13% of adults with higher literacy skills (Level 2 and above in the Survey) perform poorly in numeracy, compared to 10% among participating countries. Underperformance in numeracy is observed in Australia across all age groups, including young people (16-24 year-olds), and across all levels of educational attainment. For example, 7% of all tertiary graduates have low numeracy skills compared to 3% with low literacy skills.

Inequality in distribution of numeracy performance

Australia, in comparison with other countries, has considerable inequalities in the distribution of numeracy scores, which signals large gaps between the lowest and the best performers. In Australia, 182 score points separate the highest and the lowest 5% of performers in numeracy, far above the participating country average of 167 score points. Only the United States has a wider gap between the lowest and the highest performers.

Significant gender difference in numeracy performances

While men and women in Australia have similar literacy skills, men perform better in numeracy. The gender gap in Australia is, on average, slightly more significant than in participating countries. The gender gap among young adults is narrower than among older adults. This may be because the school system is now more effective in conveying numeracy skills to girls than in the past, or because an initially narrow gender gap in numeracy widens later in life due to the lower participation of women in the labour market and the over-representation of women in jobs requiring lower numeracy skills and in part-time employment.

Women are less likely to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields

Evidence shows that girls and boys tend to absorb, and act on, gender stereotypes about school subjects early on in their schooling (OECD, 2011; 2013). These stereotypes may influence young people’s choices of fields of study. This determines the skills they develop, as some fields of study may require stronger numeracy skills than others. In Australia, as in many other countries, boys are far more likely than girls to choose mathematics and science (Kennedy et al., 2014). Women in Australia studying at post-secondary and tertiary levels are less likely to graduate in science (40% of graduates), and much less likely to graduate in fields of study such as engineering, manufacturing and construction (25% of graduates) (OECD, 2016, Table A3.3).

Figure 3.1. Literacy and numeracy skills, by levels
16-65 year-olds (2012, 2015)

Note: Adults who obtained their highest qualification outside the host country, those with foreign qualifications and firstgeneration migrants who obtained their highest qualification prior to entering the host country, are excluded.

Source: OECD calculations based on OECD (2016a), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (Database 2012, 2015),

Immigrants also score lower on numeracy than literacy

In Australia, the skill gap between natives (born in Australia) and immigrants (foreign born), including in numeracy, is smaller than in most participating countries. However, the gap between literacy and numeracy scores among immigrants remains as significant as in the native population (12 point difference).

Figure 3.2. Performance of immigrants in numeracy and literacy

Note: Japan, Poland and Turkey are excluded due to small sample size.

Source: OECD calculations based on OECD (2016a), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (Database 2012, 2015),

Declining numeracy skills

Trends in average performances in numeracy (and literacy) provide an indicator of how school systems are evolving over the years. The Survey of Adult Skills only gives a snapshot of adult performance in 2012; however, in combination with other comparable OECD surveys it can be used to track how Australian performance has evolved over recent years. The Survey of Adult Skills was designed to provide reliable comparisons with the results of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which was administered between 1994 and 1998, and the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL), administered between 2003 and 2007. Australia participated in all three surveys. The average literacy scores of adults in Australia slightly increased during this period, from 272 in IALS to 277 in ALL and finally 280 in PIAAC. A numeracy test was introduced in ALL, and the numeracy score declined from 272 in ALL to 268 in PIAAC (Paccagnella, 2016). These results indicate that adults nowadays may have lower numeracy skills than adults 10 years ago.

Trends in mathematics

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluates education systems worldwide by periodically testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. PISA reviews the extent to which students near the end of compulsory education have acquired some of the knowledge and skills essential for their full participation in modern society, particularly in mathematics, reading and science. Although the PISA mathematic scores of young Australians are above average, the results show that over the years, the numeracy skills of 15-year-olds may have declined. From 2003, the mean mathematics score of 15-year-old Australians continuously decreased (in PISA 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2012 results). Of the 64 countries with PISA trend data, 25 show an average annual improvement in mathematics performances between 2003 and 2012, 25 show no change, and 14 (Australia included) show an average deterioration in performance. Most countries with a similar performance to Australia in 2003 (such as Belgium (Flanders), Japan or Switzerland) improved their results over the years, while in the Czech Republic and New Zealand results worsened between 2003 and 2012. Australian reading scores in PISA have also declined over the years, although the rate of deceleration was smaller than for mathematics. The change in PISA scores could be explained by the difference in cohorts taking the test (15-year-olds assessed in 2003 are different to 15-year-olds taking the test in 2012). Declining results may also be due to a worsening performance of the school system.

Above-average PISA mathematics scores at the age of 15 transform to below average performances at the age of 20-22 in PIAAC

PISA and PIAAC results could, to a certain extent, be compared to track the development of skills in young adults. However, the results need to be treated with caution as the conclusions draw on a comparison of two independent cross-sectional datasets administered at different points of time. Students aged 15 who participated in PISA 2000 reappear as 27-year-olds in PIAAC, similarly those who participated in PISA 2003 are aged 24 in PIAAC 2012. The PISA/PIAAC comparison shows that 15-year-old Australian students have above-average numeracy scores in all PISA cycles from 2000 to 2012, but a below-average performance among the relevant age cohorts in PIAAC. For example 15-year-olds in 2006 perform above average in numeracy in PISA, but by the age of 20-22 their numeracy skills fall below the average in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Strengths in numeracy skills among 15-year-old Australians transform to weaknesses in basic numeracy skills as young adults. Other top performers in numeracy in PISA, such as Japan, Finland or the Netherlands, maintain their top position in the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). The drop of Australia in the country ranking between PISA and the Survey of Adult Skills only applies to numeracy proficiencies. In literacy, Australia is among the best performing countries in both assessments. Development of numeracy skills therefore represents a key challenge in Australia.

Figure 3.3. Performance of young people in PISA and in PIAAC
Comparison of 15-year-olds in PISA assessment with 20-22 year-olds in PIAAC assessment

Note: How to read this chart: These charts show how 15-year-old students performed in PISA relative to other countries, and how the same cohorts scored, again relative to other countries, as young adults a few years later in the Survey of Adult Skills. For example, the 15-year-olds in the United States had below-average numeracy scores in 2006. Six years later, 21-year-old US adults also had below-average scores in the Survey of Adult Skills. Countries in the top right quadrant (e.g. Korea, Finland) had above-average scores on both assessments.

The average presented here is a refinement of the average presented in the main report of the Survey of Adult Skills (OECD, 2013a). It refers to the arithmetic mean of country estimates, restricted to the set of countries that participated in both the Survey of Adult Skills and the corresponding round of PISA.

Source: OECD (2012), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), Database 2012,; OECD (2006), PISA database 2006,

The consequences of not having good numeracy skills

Numeracy skills assessed by the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) refer to mathematical reasoning required to manage and solve real life problems. Numeracy skills are not about abstract mathematics, but about applying mathematical concepts to daily situations in all aspects of life. For example, some people with low basic numeracy skills (Level 2 or below) may not be able to read a petrol gauge to estimate how much petrol is left in the car’s fuel tank. From a policy point of view it is therefore reasonable to expect all citizens to acquire at least basic numeracy skills.

Better numeracy skills are associated with higher earnings and higher employment rates

Both higher numeracy and literacy are associated with stronger labour market performance and social outcomes, even when other factors, such as years of education, age, gender, spoken language, and parental education and years of education are taken into account. In Australia, an increase of 50 points on the numeracy scale (corresponding to a difference between two levels of proficiency) is associated with a 10% increase in wages for men and 6% for women.

Using 2012 PIAAC data, Lane and Conlon (2016) showed that there are significantly higher earnings and employment returns to increasing levels of formally recognised education and to increasing levels of numeracy and literacy skills proficiencies, when controlling for the level of education. In particular, they found that in the majority of OECD countries, numeracy skills are associated with higher earnings compared to equivalent literacy levels (at each level of education). Compared to literacy skills, the authors demonstrated that numeracy skills have a much more significant impact on employment outcomes.

Strong numeracy skills will be required in the labour market

“The Australian Government estimates that up to 75% of areas with the fastest-growing jobs will require science, technology, engineering or mathematics skills” (Cook, 2015). Filling these jobs could represent a challenge given shortages in numeracy skills among many adults, including young people, in Australia. Already, 25% of employers report having difficulties with recruiting workers with STEM skills (The Australian Industry Group, 2016). As a result, Australia may lose out in the technological race against countries with a large pool of well-skilled individuals.

Recommendations: How to tackle low performance in numeracy

Policy pointer 1: Increase participation of women in STEM fields

Breakdown stereotypes to encourage women to enter STEM fields

Gender differences in educational choices are often related to student attitudes (motivation, interest) in studying a particular subject, rather than their ability and school performance. Young women often do not translate their good school performance into choosing a field of study that offers better employment prospects, such as studies in STEM fields. If policy were able to attract and retain more women in the STEM workforce, this would increase the number of scientists and engineers overall, thus promoting research, innovation and, ultimately, long term growth. Such policies would also help reduce occupational segmentation in the labour force and improve gender equity in labour market outcomes overall (Finnie and Frenette, 2003; AAUW, 2015).

The Australian Government recently introduced initiatives to increase participation in STEM fields

The Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda, announced in December 2015, provides AUS 112 million over four years from 2016-17 for initiatives increasing the participation of all students in STEM and improving their digital literacy. These initiatives target school-age students and those in the early learning years. They encourage more women to choose and stay in STEM research and related careers. The government is also providing AUS 28 million over four years for 1 400 new industry internships for PhD researchers with a focus on supporting women to choose to study and work in STEM.

Example of successful initiatives: How other countries overcome job stereotypes in schools

The under-representation of women in STEM fields is common in many countries. In response to this challenge, various initiatives have been developed. Box 3.1 describes Inspiring the Future, a United Kingdom initiative by Education and Employers that aims to break down job gender stereotypes at school in the United Kingdom.

Box 3.1. Inspiring the Future: Career guidance and gender

This initiative aims to raise aspirations by helping young people understand the link between learning in school and the world of work in order to motivate them to improve their academic performance. One of the aims of Inspiring the Future is to break down job gender stereotypes among young people and encourage girls and boys to envisage jobs that are traditionally associated with the other gender (watch the video presenting the Inspiring the Future initiative

Inspiring the Future connects primary and secondary schools and volunteers from the world of work. Volunteers represent different sectors and positions and range from apprentices to chief executives. They talk informally to young people about their job and career route in schools near where they live or work. Teachers and volunteers are connected through a secure website. Teachers select and invite people who best meet the needs of their students from a range of sectors and professions.

Source: Education and Employers Taskforce (2016), Inspiring the Future,

Policy pointer 2: Strengthen the focus on mathematics throughout secondary education

Poor numeracy performance of young upper-secondary graduates in Australia

International comparison shows that while young adults in Australia have strong literacy skills, in numeracy they lag behind their peers with comparable qualifications, for both academic and vocational education and training (VET) orientation (see Table 3.1. Basic skills demands of upper-secondary qualifications across countries). While this finding cannot directly be connected to the design of the school system in Australia, it raises questions about the effectiveness of the school system in developing strong numeracy skills in young people.

Table 3.1. Basic skills demands of upper-secondary qualifications across countries
A comparison of numeracy and literacy skills of 16-34 year-olds with upper-secondary qualifications across countries, with qualifications broken down into academic and vocational








279 (3)

266 (3)

294 (3)

274 (3)


311 (4)

274 (2)

307 (3)

272 (2)


299 (3)

278 (3)

300 (2)

269 (3)


311 (2)

280 (2)

319 (2)



285 (2)

248 (2)

295 (2)

260 (2)


306 (3)

268 (3)

308 (2)

267 (3)


293 (3)

276 (3)

319 (2)

286 (2)


314 (2)

279 (2)

294 (2)

275 (3)


270 (2)

254 (7)

278 (2)

258 (5)

Note: Standard errors in brackets.

Source: OECD calculations based on OECD (2016a), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (Database 2012, 2015),

The share of upper-secondary students studying science and advanced mathematics has declined

In Australia, education is compulsory until the age of 16, which roughly corresponds to the end of lower-secondary school (Australian Government, 2016). Beyond this point, students can chose senior secondary education (years 11 and 12) that ends with a senior secondary certificate providing access to higher education institutions. They can also follow a vocational education and training route. In Australia, while English is compulsory throughout senior secondary school in nearly the whole country, mathematics is compulsory only in some parts of Australia (Kennedy et al., 2014). Many students can therefore choose not to study mathematics in the second stage of their secondary education. Kennedy et al., (2014) show that between 1992 and 2012, the percentage of students studying advanced and intermediate mathematics and science declined. According to some studies, the diversification of subjects students can choose from was the most likely cause of the decline (Phillips, 2016).

The Australian Government has launched initiatives to improve mathematics performances among young people

The Australian Government has launched many initiatives to address the challenge of low numeracy skills among young people. It has provided AUS 7.4 million (through the Inquiry project) to improve the teaching practices, student engagement and learning outcomes in mathematics. Free online resources developed by the Australian Academy of Science will support this project. They will help students to deal with complex situations using a variety of mathematical methods drawing on real-world examples. The classroom resources for Foundation to Year 10 will have a particular focus on understanding, reasoning and problem solving. In addition, a range of professional learning resources will promote individual teacher learning and whole-school change.

Example of successful initiatives: How other countries tackle low numeracy skills

England (United Kingdom) is one of the countries where, until recently, students could opt out of mathematics and English before the age of 16. For example, 16-year-old students passing the final secondary exam (GCSE) could choose not to pass it in mathematics and English. National evaluations, such as Skills for Life Surveys, and international studies, such as the International Survey of Adult Skills, pointed out that the system was failing in developing strong basic skills for young people. In response, a range of reforms reinforcing the position of English and mathematics in the education system was introduced, described in Box 3.2.

Box 3.2. Reform of the school system in England (United Kingdom)

More young people are now required to continue with English and mathematics

To increase completion rates and improve basic skills among young people, the age of compulsory education has been raised from 16 to 18. English and mathematics have become mandatory for all students passing their GCSEs (a secondary exam typically taken by 16-year-olds). Since August 2014, students aged between 16 and 19 who have not achieved a good pass in English and/or mathematics at GCSE by age 16 must continue to work towards achieving either these qualifications or an approved interim qualification. The new requirements apply to all young people, including those in apprenticeships and vocational programmes.

New initiatives seek the better preparation of further education teachers of mathematics and English

With a view to upskilling the workforce in upper-secondary institutions (mainly further colleges) in the teaching of mathematics and English, a GBP 30 million package was put in place for 2014/2015. It includes bursaries of GBP 9 000 for English teachers, and of GBP 20 000 for mathematics teachers to attract good graduates into teaching. There are also programmes to enhance the skills of existing mathematics and English teachers so that they can teach at GCSE level. Support has also been offered for professional development for up to 2 000 teachers who want to teach mathematics to GCSE level. The new Education and Training Foundation (ETF) is seeking to improve standards in teaching and learning including English and mathematics. The Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted) Common Inspection Framework has been revised to give more attention to English and mathematics.

Source: Kuczera M., S. Field and H. Windisch (2016), Building Skills for All: A Review of England. Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills,


The American Association of University Women (2015), Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing,

Australian Government (2016), Australian Education System, (accessed 10 October 2017).

The Australian Industry Group (2016), Workforce Development Needs. Survey Report,

Cook, H. (2015) “Christopher Pyne pushes for maths or science to be compulsory for year 11 and 12 students”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May 2015,

Education and Employers Taskforce (2016), Inspiring the Future,

Finnie, R. and Frenette, M. (2003), “Earning differences by major field of study: evidence from three cohorts of recent Canadian graduates”, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 22/2, pp. 179-192.

Kennedy, J. P. T. Lyons and F. Quinn (2014), “The continuing decline of science and mathematics enrolments in Australian high schools”, Teaching Science, Vol. 60/2, pp. 34-46.

Kuczera M., S. Field and H. Windisch (2016), Building Skills for All: A Review of England. Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills,

Lane, M. and G. Conlon (2016), “The impact of literacy, numeracy and computer skills on earnings and employment outcomes”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 129, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014), PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do (Volume I, Revised edition, February 2014): Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2013), Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2012), Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), Database 2012,

OECD (2011), Report on the Gender Initiative: Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship,

OECD (2006), PISA database 2006,

Paccagnella, M. (2016), “Age, ageing and skills: Results from the Survey of Adult Skills”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 132, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Phillips, N. (2016), “20-year decline in year 12 science and maths participation, study finds”, The Sydney Morning Herald,6 October 2014,

← 1. The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and are under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.