Numeracy: to sum up, cashless may leave us clueless

The shift towards a cashless society sped up in the pandemic. Over the past decade cash payments in the UK have dropped from 55 per cent to 15 per cent of the total. Three in 10 Britons do not use notes or coins even once a month.

Potential downsides include higher risks of fraud and financial exclusion. Could the death of cash damage numeracy skills too?

The biggest issue concerns young children. Many parents are giving their kids little experience with coins and notes, according to 2019 research. Some assume it is unnecessary, given the move towards invisible money. Teachers strongly disagree, according to a study by the Money and Pensions Service.

Mastering maths tends to be a journey from the concrete to the abstract. Children’s fading familiarity with coins means they must jump straight to the abstract. Bobby Seagull, maths teacher and broadcaster, says there is a risk of damage to their intellectual development.

Getting out of the cash habit is a problem for adults too. Waving a phone over a contactless terminal involves none of the “sensation of loss’” that comes from the depleted wad. Its speed and ease make it harder to spot mistakes.

That is compounding other trends that diminish the importance of mental maths. Declining fluency with numbers set in with calculator use, according to a 2016 study of Canadian and Northern Irish students. The speed and accuracy of solving such problems as 34 + 17 fell by at least a quarter over 20 years. The growth of smartphones made do-it-yourself sums less common still. Even darts games may involve an automated scoreboard these days.

The importance of speedy mental maths skills can be exaggerated. Numeracy is as much about thinking and reasoning as “doing sums”, according to charity National Numeracy.

But mastery of basic skills builds confidence. People who do sums at work are also likely to employ them in everyday life, says the OECD. When it comes to maths, the “use it or lose it” maxim applies. Cashless transactions are surely contributing to the decline of mental arithmetic.

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This post was originally published on Financial Times

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