The proportion of adults with functional maths skills equivalent to a GCSE grade C has dropped from 26 per cent in 2003 to only 22 per cent in 2011, according to the charity National Numeracy. Meanwhile, 57 per cent achieved the equivalent in functional literacy skills.
Dr Denes Szucs, deputy director at Cambridge’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education and one of the report’s authors, said that there is a widespread misunderstanding that only low performing children suffer from maths anxiety.
“This is actually a very frequent misconception that we have seen in decision makers,” he said. “They automatically assume people are anxious about maths because they are poor achievers.”
In fact, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of children with high levels of maths anxiety are normal to high achievers.
Dr Szucs went on: “Probably their maths anxiety will go unnoticed because their performance is good. But they are very anxious and in the long term their performance is suppressed.
“This is a real danger here: these are children who are completely able to do maths at a normal level, but may keep away from it because they feel anxious.”
The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, also found that girls have higher levels of maths anxiety than boys. Students who have the condition face a vicious circle, with their anxiety leading to poorer performance and poorer performance increasing anxiety. Maths anxiety is present from a young age, researchers found, but can develop as the child grows.
Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation which funded the research, said: “Mathematical achievement is valuable in its own right, as a foundation for many other subjects and as an important predictor of future academic outcomes, employment opportunities and even health.
“Maths anxiety can severely disrupt students’ performance in the subject in both primary and secondary school.
“But importantly – and surprisingly – this new research suggests that the majority of students experiencing maths anxiety have normal to high maths ability.”