Measurement muddle damages education

I recently received the following enquiry expressing concern about imperial conversions in school.

“My daughter brought home some homework last week which included learning some constants – e.g. 1kg = 1000g. Included in the list was 1kg = 2.2lb and 1 mile = 1.6km. I think it’s out of order for a school to be spending time on metric/imperial conversions. Imperial is dead and the school should help to bury it. Do I have a point, and should I talk to the teacher?”

[article by Phil Hall]

I could not agree more with the above remark. Imperial measures should be phased out of the curriculum along with other changes in wider society (e.g. road signs) so that future generations only have to contend with a single system. As it is there is no recognition of the damage that the measurement muddle is doing to education. It can only result in obstacles to children being able to apply their academic knowledge, based on the metric system, to the world outside lessons where much of the real learning takes place.

However it needs to be made clear that it is not the fault of the school that such practices are going on. Nowadays teachers are directed more than ever about the content and objectives of programmes of study in school. That direction comes from the government and it is they who are now putting imperial conversions back into the curriculum to help pupils cope with the measurement mess in Britian.

It is quite deplorable that our education system should be compromised in this way instead of tackling the underlying problem caused by the policies of successive governments in the first place.

Author: UK Metric Association

Campaigning for a single, rational system of measurement

10 thoughts on “Measurement muddle damages education”

  1. Regrettably the teacher cannot do anything about it – a few years ago a diktat came from Government that children must be taught how to convert between metric and imperial units – it is tested as part of SATS. Children are not taught how to manipulate imperial units, but even worse, they are not using metric units in the playground or at home so are ending up not understanding either system.


  2. I fully agree. My recommendation would be for the parent to not only speak to the teacher but also raise it with the senior teacher in charge of overseeing the curriculum (this may be a deputy headteacher).
    It is important that schools do more to promote the ideas of ‘think metric’ and ‘archive Imperial units’.
    Teachers can help promote full metrication by sending their recomendations to Curriculum committees, and Examination boards. ‘Every little helps’… to try and achieve a single rational system of measurement in the UK as soon as possible.


  3. I was the person who originally made this enquiry, and I can update you on my progress with this issue.
    I did raise this with my daughter’s teacher at the parents’ evening, and I was informed that this is part of the national curriculum and that they have no option but to teach it. She said that the head teacher would be very pleased if they did not have to teach it, but his hands are tied. The only recourse we have is through elected representatives.
    The saddest part of the story was when I saw my daughter’s class work from the following week. She’s pretty consistently average or slightly above in most of her work. But in the exercise on weights and measures she had scored zero marks. Swamped with all these illogical figures, she had failed not just to learn the pointless metric/imperial conversions, but also she had failed to learn the important information about relationships between metres and centimetres etc. Seriously failed by the national curriculum!


  4. I started school in 1976 – my education was entirely in metric units, presumably in the hope of imminent total metrication along with a decimal currency. My science education was entirely in SI units. I now work in medicine, where we measure the mass of newborn babies in kilos and have to ‘translate’ it to pounds for the mothers! I cannot believe that the government has taken this retrograde step in education.

    Although I cannot conceptualise a quart, a fathom, a “cwt” or a grain, by necessity I’m fully aware that a kilogram is 2.2 lb and a pint is 568 ml. Really, in a country that sees itself as modern and progressive, I shouldn’t need to know this!

    If children were (as I was) taught entirely in metric, the arguments for maintaining this ridiculous status quo would evaporate.


  5. I think that Dave Brown was absolutely right in discussing this issue with both the teacher and the school administration.

    I suggest that he goes further and raise the issue with his Member of Parliament.

    I suggest this because the resistance to the simplicity, ease of use, economy, and honesty of the metric system is essentially mindless as it is based on partly remembered tradition (‘that’s what we had to do when we went to school’), or on senseless nationalism (‘those foreigners can’t tell us what to do’), and perhaps both of these unfortunate motivations.


    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia


  6. You should not go to see the headteacher. Children should be taught basic imperial units; not only because many are still in use (with normal people, unlike the wierdos at UKMA) but because it can be counted as history. Just because a system is in decline or not used by some, it doesn’t mean it should just be forgotten. Children need to learn the basics.


  7. Our children need to learn mathematics and to use it effectively. The metric system is logical, simple and easier to apply. These virtues are easily demonstrated. Traditional measures such as imperial are cumbersome to use by comparison and can only obscure the process of solving problems and being able to draw together relevent information.

    I fully agree that children need to learn to deal with the world as it is but the disparity, where it exists, has been brought about by a short sighted, irresponsible resistance to change, and a failure of government policy over the last 40 years.

    The imperial system has no more right to claim history than metric. Metric units have been used in the UK for well over a century and were invented in France more than two decades before Britain cobbled together its protectionist imperial system.


  8. Up a few years back (10 or more?) schools taught only in metric. Then a tabloid published a story about kids not knowing common Imperial units and a big fuss was caused. As a result knowledge of the most common Imperial units was added to the National Curriculum.

    A safety argument can be made for teaching miles, yards, feet and inches, since these can appear on road signs unaccompanied by metric equivalents. (Conversely, the cost of teaching them should be factored into the estimates of the cost of road sign conversion.)

    I see no value in teaching pints or any other traditional measure. Using Imperial measures in schools would be no more helpful to the teaching of history than requiring pupils to wear togas.


  9. I agree fully that children need to learn the basics. In the case of arithmetic, the basics are an understanding of the four basic operations – add, subtract, multiplication and division and once these have been mastered (but not before), how to use a calculator. In my view, calculators should only be introduced at secondary school by which time the children would have mastered the basic operations.

    It is of course debatable whether children should be taught decimal fraction or vulgar fraction first, but given the degree to which calculators are used, I think that decimal fractions should be taught ahead of vulgar fraction. Calculations involving money should be taught at a relatively early stage – a useful way of introducing decimal fractions and physical measurements introduced at a slightly later stage.

    By the time that children are doing practical calculations involving physical measurements, they will be using calculators. Ever tried finding the average of a set of numbers expressed in stones and pounds using a calculator? Unless you have a special calculator that handles stones and pounds, the technique used is really tedious, whereas many calculators have an “Average� button that can be used if decimal numbers (and thus metric units) are used. This suggests that metric units should take precedence over imperial units. If we want to help our children, then any rational person will realise that the way forward is to promote the metric system.


  10. As long as road signage persists in imperial measurements, we are going to have these problems. That is the crux of the matter. I follow Tabitha Jones’s reasoning that children need to be familiar with common usage, but it is because of the failure of successive governments to deal with road signage that we are still forced to use these units.


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