Exploring parents’ maths knowledge, misconceptions and confidence in helping their child with their maths work, with Sammy White.

5 million adults’ numeracy and literacy skills are below Level 2. 1

The Learning and Work Institute reported that there are “9 million people in the UK with low levels of literacy or numeracy and 5 million who have low levels in both.”1 ‘Low levels’ means below Level 2 Functional Skills, which is equivalent to a GCSE Grade 4 (old-style C) pass. Topics in Functional Skills Level 2 thread throughout all ages of maths study, with many being familiar ones, such as using multiplication facts to learn division facts. Functional Skills are an alternative to GCSEs that offer a problem-solving approach to English and Maths.

Combatting maths anxiety

If those with maths anxiety are the adults who help support children with completing their homework, we have a perfect storm. Studies have shown that ‘parental anxiety when doing maths homework can affect students’ performance.’ 2 But how many parents are affected? The answer is, we don’t know. We know those even with high levels of numeracy attainment can still experience maths anxiety.

Recognising that some parents may have maths anxiety is the first step – and offering sources of support where they can learn without fear of embarrassment can help. The National Numeracy Challenge is a free anonymous online tool to diagnose and support adults in improving their everyday maths. One of their tips in addressing maths anxiety is writing about your relationship with Maths. For example, Mars from Mars Maths starts her adult education classes by asking her students to write a letter to ‘Maths’, explaining how they feel. Her students review this letter at the end of the year and celebrate how far they’ve come.

Some maths anxiety in parents may come as a result of the change in methods since they were at school. The Family Maths Toolkit has a comprehensive guide to methods in mathematics, alongside useful tips for parents.

It’s important for parents to know that they won’t harm their child by using alternative methods and to look at the positives of having the opportunity to explore solving problems in different ways.

For children, exploring alternative methods is an opportunity for them to deepen their understanding, so it is an enhancement rather than a hindrance to their learning.

What is Functional Skills Mathematics?

Functional Skills Mathematics starts at Entry Level 1, progresses through to Entry Level 3 and then onto Level 1, before the GCSE equivalent of Level 2. Although you don’t need to pass each of these levels, you must evidence competency at each level before you can progress. For example, an adult may present as being competent at Entry Level 3 and so they would begin their course at Level 1.

Each level of Functional Skills has a specification of topics covered that may be familiar to you. For example, Entry Level 3 students learn how to “Calculate with money using decimal notation and express money correctly in writing in pounds and pence”. Level 1 students build on this skill and progress to being able to “Calculate discounts in multiples of 5% on amounts of money”. 3

With 5 million adults having numeracy and literacy at or below this level, sharing resources to support them, alongside homework, may help parents feel less anxious.

What were the most searched for home-schooling questions in 2020?

Looking at data, such as frequently searched Maths home-schooling questions, can indicate areas of the subject where parents lack confidence or have gaps in their learning.

Here are the top three questions asked in a survey of 1,000 UK parents from Clarks 4:

Number One: “How to work out percentages”

A skill we may assume many adults hold. Yet percentages, and other topics in maths, can cause anxiety in parents. Percentages are a Level 1 topic in Functional Skills, a level where adults would still be classed as having low levels of attainment. BBC Bitesize has videos contextualising where percentages occur in real life.

Number Two: “What is the ‘mean’ in Maths?”

Calculating the mean is also a Level 1 Functional Skills topic, and adults working at this level are not quite working at the Level 2 standard. At Level 1, adults would be classed as having low numeracy. Yet, how often do we assume parents can support our students in calculating the mean? With over 4,800 YouTube subscribers, Mars Maths offers a wealth of videos to support adults learning functional skills, including calculating the mean.

Number Three: “What are prime numbers?”

Recognising prime numbers is a Level 2 Functional Skills topic. This is often the level of numeracy required for university and job applications. Many universities accept Level 2 Functional Skills as an alternative to GCSEs in those subjects. Websites such as Maths Made Easy have clearly labelled content, including this helpful page on prime numbers.

There is a challenge in finding appropriate resources to support adults that don’t appear patronising when learning topics that are often taught in primary schools.

Adult education

Functional Skills Mathematics offers an opportunity for adults to re-engage with maths and their love of learning. According to the Learning and Work Institute, “48% of students who complete maths courses go on to further study.” 1

So, what can we do to help?

  • There are lots of adult education providers and Further Education (FE) colleges offering functional skills to adults – and many also offer ‘introduction to maths’ courses before formal study begins. Many providers now also offer online courses where adults have a choice about how and when they study, to fit around their other commitments.
  •  The Family Maths Toolkit has lots more information about the National Numeracy Challenge and ways schools can engage parents with maths, including tips on becoming a local education hub.
  • Explore what courses are available locally and where you can signpost parents to. Highlighting these study options may be the key to relieving some of their maths anxiety.

A better-supported parent is in a better place to support their child.


  1. Learning and Work institute (2021) Getting the basics right: The case for action on adult basic skills, Available at: https://learningandwork.org.uk/resources/research-and-reports/getting-the-basics-right-the-case-for-action-on-adult-basicskills/
    (Accessed: 19/01/2022)
  2. Maloney, E et al., (2015) ‘Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Achievement and Anxiety’ Psychological Science volume 26 (Issue 9) doi:10.1177/0956797615592630
  3. GOV UK (2018) ‘Subject content, functional skills: mathematics’ Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a97f43de5274a5b87c300e0/Functional_Skills_Subject_Content_Mathematics.pdf (Accessed: 19/01/2022)
  4. Clarks (2020) The UK’s Most Searched-For Homeschooling Questions, Available at: https://www.clarks.co.uk/editorial/mostsearched-homeschooling-questions (Accessed: 19/01/2022)


  • Sammy White

    Sammy White, learning evangelist at Glean, is a champion for innovation in education. Recognised in the 2023 Tech Women 100 and ranking number 3 in the Global Thought Leaders in Education 2024. Sammy believes technology is a powerful tool to personalise learning and ignite student potential.
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