View all newsletters
Receive our newsletter - data, insights and analysis delivered to you
  1. News
February 1, 2022

British adults’ maths blindspot revealed

By Zoya Malik

New research by AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) has revealed that millions of Britons failed to successfully identify basic GCSE level maths symbols such as less than, square root, pi and infinity.

Almost two-fifths (41%) of British adults cannot correctly identify the infinity symbol (∞). More than a third (36%) struggled to recognise the square root symbol (√), and 34% couldn’t name the less than sign .

Less often used signs such as greater than or equal to (≥) went unidentified by 64%, while more than three-quarters (78%) couldn’t name approximately equal to (≈), and is similar to (~) proved the most difficult for 95% of respondents.

Just 40 (2%) of the 2,000 British adults surveyed by AAT could name all ten GCSE level mathematical symbols, with men outperforming their female counterparts, getting 65% of their answers correct versus 61%. However, AAT reports that two-thirds of its members and students are currently female, showing interest in the subject is open to all.

The East of England was the top-performing region in the UK, scoring correctly 64.8% of the time, followed by London (64.5%) and the East Midlands (64.3%). Wales was the worst performing region scoring 58.6%, almost 5% below the national average of 62.8% and 6.2% below the top performing region.

Rachel Staples, Head of Qualifications and Product Development at AAT, said, “Maths can be a polarising topic with many people believing they aren’t good at it, however, that shouldn’t be the case. While we’ve looked into the knowledge of the nation in regards to common GCSE mathematical symbols, the truth is they aren’t used as frequently in later life or indicative of overall professional success.”

However, it is not just the average Briton that struggles with symbols they might not have seen since they were last in a classroom. More than a quarter (27%) of teachers could not identify the symbol for square root, and almost one in six (17%) couldn’t identify pi when quizzed.

Healthcare professionals – such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists – also provided mixed responses performing worse overall than educators, with 35% being unable able to identify the symbol for square root, and 21% unable to name pi, the mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

While financial and business services professionals such as payroll, accounting and administration executives were the seventh-best performing profession, AAT reports that other skills are just as important for a successful career in accountancy.

Rachel Staples continued: “Accountancy is for people with a broad skillset – you don’t need a degree in applied mathematics to succeed. Whilst an interest in numbers helps, skills such as attention to detail, a keen interest in the mechanics of business and softer communications skills will put someone in good stead if they are thinking of pursuing a career in finance.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing the remit of accounting professionals shift beyond just crunching numbers into more of a mini business consultant role, helping people at all levels of an organisation make important staffing, procurement and business decisions. This includes interpreting data for clients and providing invaluable advice and expertise – which is critically important as businesses continue to weather the fallout from the pandemic – so they really are more than the sum of their parts. Accountancy is, therefore, a career open to anyone regardless of age, background or experience, not just those that are a whizz at maths.”

Interestingly, almost one in three (29%) of Britons identified the correct symbol for Pi – π – however, opted for the savoury spelling, pie, demonstrating their eye for detail could be improved.

Rachel Staples added: “At this stage of the year when many people are thinking about career decisions or changing roles, we strongly encourage people to explore accountancy and the range of AAT qualifications available. Regardless of education level, an AAT qualification allows flexible study options and can help build the solid foundations of a successful career in business and finance.”

Full research breakdowns

Mathematical symbolMathematical namePercentage of UK adults that correctly identified the symbol
+Plus100%
Minus98%
÷Divide97%
πPi80%
Less than66%
Square root64%
Infinity59%
Greater than or equal to37%
Approximately equal to22%
~Is similar to5%

Top performing cities of the UK

RegionPercentage of correct answers across all ten symbols
St Albans71.3%
Aberdeen71.2%
Walsall68.7%
York67.1%
Newport66.7%
Derby66.4%
Leicester65.7%
Chelmsford65.5%
Gloucester65.3%
Bradford65.2%
Dundee65.2%
Southampton65.0%
Cambridge64.6%
Northampton64.3%
Peterborough64.3%
Wolverhampton64.3%
Portsmouth64.1%
Exeter63.9%
Brighton63.7%
Lisburn63.3%
Liverpool63.2%
Nottingham63.2%
Oxford63.1%
Manchester63.0%
Bristol62.8%
United Kingdom62.8%
Newcastle62.3%
Durham62%
Sheffield61.9%
Birmingham61.8%
Leeds61.8%
Sunderland61.8%
Kingston Upon Thames61.7%
London61.3%
Swansea61.2%
Edinburugh60.0%
Warrington60.0%
Northwich59.6%
Plymouth59.4%
Bath59.3%
Blackpool59.1%
Belfast59.0%
Glasgow58.6%
Cardiff57.3%
Dudley56.4%
Middlesbrough56.0%
Coventry55.2%
Wrexham55.2%
Derry53.3%

Top performing regions of the UK

RegionPercentage of correct answers across all ten symbols
East England64.8%
London64.5%
East Midlands64.3%
South East63.8%
Yorkshire63%
Scotland62.8%
North West62.2%
South West62%
West Midlands61.7%
North East61%
Northern Ireland59%
Wales58.6%
United Kingdom62.8%

Top performing professions

ProfessionPercentage of correct answers across all ten symbols
Technology & Engineering73.3%
Information & Communication Services72.1%
Education, Training & HR70.5%
Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing70%
Chemical & Life Sciences68.9%
Real Estate & Property Services67.3%
Financial & Business Services66.9%
Hair & Beauty Services66.2%
Health & Pharmaceutical64.7%
Industrial Manufacturing64.2%
Human Health & Social Work62.6%
United Kingdom62.8%

The research – a consumer survey of 2,000 British adults which is nationally representative – was conducted in January 2022.

To find out more about AAT qualifications and a career in finance, visit www.aat.org.uk/career-in-finance.

Case studies

Case study: “Studying AAT and working gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise”

When she left school, Jess Harcourt, 29 from Manchester, initially thought she’d go on to college and then university.

“It’s deemed the right path, especially if you get good grades,” she says. “At 16, I thought the best thing to do would be to pursue the A-levels I was good at, which was maths and further maths. But I was there for about a week and quickly decided I wasn’t happy at all, so I needed to find something else to do.”

After starting a job in administration, Jess’s talent for spreadsheets was quickly spotted by the company’s managing director, who moved her into the finance team.

“I thought: ‘I’m actually quite good at this, I might give it a go.’ And that’s when I started studying with AAT. While I was there, I got my AAT Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications. It was challenging working full-time and then studying in the evenings, but I loved the sense of achievement I got from passing my exams.”

Jess stayed in her role for four years before moving to an exciting start up marketing company Social Chain as the first member of their finance team, where she studied AAT Level 4. She progressed to become the Finance Manager leading a team of three.

“Social Chain has a great culture,” Jess says. “They’ve funded my AAT training and supported me with time off to study and take my exams. The company’s grown massively in a short space of time and I was definitely thrown in at the deep end when I started, but it’s not just a workplace – it’s where my friends are, so it’s a pleasure to come to work every day. Every employee is valued and we get some great perks too.”

After six years at Social Chain, Jess was headhunted again for another start-up an investment company, Fearless Adventures. “Fearless Adventures is giving me the opportunity to use even more of what I have learnt through AAT. We are using a combination of investment as well as talent to help drive business growth. I’m the Management Accountant so it’s my job to collate and analyse the figures for each of the partners, I get to work directly with the entrepreneurs to give them the information they need to make the right decisions for them. It’s nerve racking but exciting to be in the start-up world again.”

When she’s not working, Jess enjoys hiking with her husband Steve. “It’s a great way of spending time together,” she says. “You can very much be in your own space, take your time and enjoy being outside.”

And she firmly believes that her AAT qualifications been a huge boost to her career.

“I’ve encouraged my team to do AAT, and am hoping to become a professional member at some point in the future. I’m also now part qualified through ACCA, which studying with AAT gave me a great foundation for.

“Studying for my AAT qualifications and working at the same time has definitely helped my career progression. It’s meant I’ve been given an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. There is a different way.”

Case study: “I never went to university – and now manage my company’s finances”


Farha Jamadar, 31 from Greenford, North London, didn’t get the opportunity to take A-levels. She instead left school a year earlier, after failing her AS exams.

“I had done well at school up until that point, so imagined I would do A-levels and go on to university,” Farha says. “I suddenly had to re-evaluate everything. I had no real idea what I wanted to do, but had always been interested in business, so found myself a business administration apprenticeship with American Airlines.”

“I loved it, and soon realised I was fascinated by the finance side of things.”

Farha looked for a permanent role locally, and found a job at Northolt-based timber suppliers Todd Doors. She was soon thrown in at the deep end after her manager left but was supported through her accounting qualifications with AAT over a three-year period.

“I loved that I was studying something which had a direct and immediate impact on my job,” Farha adds.  “I would study something one evening and be able to put it into good use the next day.”

As Farha progressed through her studies, she was also promoted at work, up to her current position of financial accounts manager. She is now studying for a further accountancy qualification with CIMA and is training to become a finance director, as well as helping to navigate the business through the challenges of the ongoing Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

“I manage my team, keep an eye on all the numbers, and make sure everything is spot on from stock control in our stores to our budgets,” Farha says.

“To people currently considering their career path – try other things, think differently and you never know where it will take you.”

NEWSLETTER Sign up Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A roundup of the latest news and analysis, sent every Wednesday.
I consent to GlobalData UK Limited collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy
SUBSCRIBED

THANK YOU

Thank you for subscribing to International Accounting Bulletin