Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Traders to sell sums with a swede

By Marie Jackson
Education reporter, BBC News

Charlie Cook
Charlie Cook says people cannot count as well as they used to
Charlie Cook may have left school at 10 but his maths is better than most people's.

For 62 years he has run a fruit and veg stall in west London's Church Street market, and is rarely, if ever, out by a penny.

"Short-changing? I can't ever remember being accused of that. Anybody that is short-changing is not a good stall holder," says Charlie, now 80.

It is this mastery of mental arithmetic, a skill shared by his fellow traders, that has prompted the government to ask them to fly the flag for numeracy.

As part of this latest 25,000 drive to raise numeracy among adults, Charlie and his colleagues across England have been recruited to promote free local basic skills courses.

Ripe red tomatoes will now come packaged in paper bags printed with a helpline number and scratch cards will be served up alongside, asking customers if they can beat a market trader at maths.

Strike - 1
Deuce - 2
Carpet - 3
Rouf - 4
Jacks - 5
Cockle - 10
Score - 20
Monkey - 500

At the scheme's launch on Tuesday, skills minister Phil Hope made an enthusiastic stab at selling some of Charlie's leeks and parsnips and totting the prices up in his head.

But it did not take long before he abandoned his sales patter for an onion juggling act for the press and their cameras.

"I'm not the best at maths," says Mr Hope, who incidentally got a grade C at A-level maths.

But good numeracy skills are vital for life and work, he says.

"We were thinking hard about where people use maths. Shopping is the obvious place.

"Market traders have got mental arithmetic and traders meet many people who might want to brush up on their maths. We think it's a very good idea."

He said he was convinced the message would reach the right people.

Skills minister Phil Hope
Skills minister Phil Hope tests his own mental arithmetic

Across England, there are about 14.9 million people who lack the skills to pass a maths GCSE.

In 2001, the government launched the Get On scheme as part of its Skills for Life Strategy.

So far it appears to have been successful and is currently just 100,000 people short of hitting its 2007 target for 1.5 million adults to get a Skills for Life qualification.

By 2010, some 2.25 million are expected to have completed the qualification.

Gloria Vitry, of Westminster Adult Education Service based in Harrow, north-west London, is among those helping to equip some of the least skilled with the ability to budget and do basic calculations.

"We are trying to make the courses friendly, to give people the confidence to come along," she says.

0800 100 900

"The first step is to come for an assessment in literacy. After that we ask them if they may want to do numeracy and budgeting."

Until now, the college's only marketing tools had been a website and prospectuses.

Now with the help of Charlie and his colleagues, Ms Vitry is hoping to see an influx of students.

"The scheme is important," says Charlie.

"You see too many people who can't count. It's not just the older people. There's too many young people that can't count as well.

"It's not the case that anybody has an aversion to learning, it's just getting the opportunity. And now they have."

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