Improving Numeracy – Why joined-up government is needed

Yesterday, Gordon Brown stressed the importance of improving numeracy skills when talking to the news media and the CBI. A modern, competitive UK clearly requires a numerate workforce. Numeracy is a life skill that everybody needs whether for managing your bank account, understanding your body weight or retiling the bathroom.

However, focusing just on schools is not enough. A child in Finland, Singapore or New Zealand will learn decimal arithmetic, decimal currency and metric units – and immediately be able to apply them outside the classroom. In Britain, a child’s numeracy skills are hobbled because it is harder for them to use their skills practically. As soon as children leave the classroom they face a hodgepodge of incompatible units: metric units (with which they can calculate) and imperial units (for which they have not been taught calculation skills).  If Mr Brown is serious about numeracy he needs to give British children the same chance as those in most other countries.

Numeracy is vital for everyday life and work, yet British proficiency is quite woeful. The DfES Skills for Life Survey showed that 15 million adults in England failed to achieve the basic level 1 proficiency in numeracy. In the workplace it is mainly applied to measurement or money but a Department of Education study in 2002 showed that one in three adults could not calculate the floor area of a room in either metric or imperial!

When I went to junior school in the mid 1960s we learned arithmetic not just with numbers but with pounds, shillings & pence; yards, feet and inches; stones, pounds & ounces – not forgetting fractions thereof. Some of my worst memories of that period were of doing long division and multiplication using “old money” and “old” imperial units. Working with a hodgepodge of bases including 3, 8, 10, 12, 14 & 20 was complex and confusing. Much time was lost in teaching us unnecessarily complex calculation, delaying the teaching of more interesting topics such as algebra, geometry and data analysis.

The educational benefits of using the metric system have long been recognised. In 1862 the Report from the Select Committee on Weights and Measures stated “Economy of time in education is one of the beneficial results of the Metric system. While the study of English weights and measures is laborious and repulsive to both teacher and pupil, any one can easily master the Metric system. The time which the use of a decimal system would save in education has been stated to be at least a year“. The report went on to unanimously recommend that Britain adopt the metric system.

Roughly 40 years ago my junior school teacher announced that everything would soon “go decimal”. He outlined the basics of decimal currency and metric measurement for us. The decision to adopt the metric system in the UK was announced in Parliament on 24 May 1965 on the merits of its simplicity, modernity and international usage. This was nothing to do with EEC pressure; after all President de Gaulle had vetoed our entry earlier.

Around 1970 we were told that then Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, was requiring us to change our textbooks and the new ones were all decimal. After improving my maths skills in secondary school, thanks to using metric units and decimal currency, it was hard to use any of it in everyday life. In 1975, when buying food for the first time I was faced again with wretched pounds, ounces and ugly fractions. My metric education was betrayed and I faced the schizophrenic world of easy calculation in metric, but imperial in most practical situations.

Today – 42 years after starting with metric – we have a “very British mess” of metric and imperial. Fuel is sold by the litre (rather than the gallon) but road signs are still based on miles (rather than kilometres); making fuel consumption calculations very difficult. Do you use metric, imperial or simply give up because it is too messy?

As a parent I have now seen how my children fail to apply their calculating skills because it is not “cool” to talk in metric units and they do not really understand imperial. One day my youngest son asked “Dad, how many metres are there in a mile?”. When I told him “1,609” he was very baffled, but would have been equally confused if I had said “well 1,760 yards”. He is not alone, last year Times straw poll yielded answers of 52 to 10,000 for the number of yards in a mile. We have now taught a second generation to calculate in metric units but prevent them from applying it.

Numeracy is not just for abstract manipulation of numbers but is a practical life skill. In almost every case it is applied either using measurement units or money or both. However, most politicians want to do nothing to change. For example, a year ago Alistair Darling rejected a call to modernise our road signs to use metric units. The Government continues to ban the metric units taught for the last 30 years from distance signs and spends millions on new signage using imperial units that have not been taught since the early 1970s. So much for “joined-up” government!

The decimal number system is the foundation of modern numeracy. Most calculations today will be done with a calculator or a spreadsheet; but they both only work with decimal numbers. It is time to acknowledge the important link between decimal numeracy skills and applying them using metric measurement. Parents can help by measuring and weighing their offspring using metres and kilograms. Teachers can help their pupils understand their classroom exercises by giving real examples of metric quantities like a kilometre, a tonne, a hectare, etc without imperial conversion.

If Britain really wants good basic skills in the workplace and the home, urgent and decisive action is needed. Just as “old money” was taken out of circulation in 1971, “old units” must be withdrawn as soon as practicable. It cannot be that difficult – after all Australia and New Zealand managed it in the 1970s. Let’s stop undermining of our children’s numeracy and complete the metric conversion once and for all.

If Gordon Brown really wants better numeracy he needs to look beyond schools and fix our shops, adverts and road signs too. This requires a ‘joined-up’ government approach to measurement; something that has been missing in the UK for four decades.

[Roddy Urquhart]

3 thoughts on “Improving Numeracy – Why joined-up government is needed”

  1. I was born in 1957. Therefore I learnt everything in imperial measurements, although I was very much aware of decimal systems. Even in my very youngest years, I couldn’t really see the point of imperial ‘systems’ when a simple, permanent conversion of everything to decimal seemed by far the easiest way to go about things.

    By my very early 20s I had trained as a carpenter, and this was where the real fun began! Because the timber industry, and most of the people working within it, were died in the wool imperial measurement drones, The way they figured it was easiest to convert timber measurements from imperial to metric was to imagine everything in ‘metric feet’. Therefore, instead of lengths of timber being cut and priced simply to the length the customer wanted, the length of all timber was sold in .3 meter multiples. This was the so-called metric foot. And it is still firmly in place today. Regardless of the job I was doing, after measuring for the length of timber I would need, I then had to do what has since become automatic, and that is to work out the length of timber I would have to buy that was just that little bit longer than what I required for the job. And this length of timber would be a length, in metres, that could be divided by three! So even though we have used metric with Timber for decades now, we still have to divide things by a very un-decimal-like number. The industry prices are always in .3 meter multiples, with length.

    Whereas the other two dimensions are wholly in metric, there are no so-called metric inches, just good old millimetres.

    One last thing to mention, because someone might find it amusing.

    For some years after the apparent decimalisation of timber by dimension, hardwoods continued to be priced by the cubic foot! So if, for example, I needed four lengths of mahogany of 5.4 m, and 225 x 25 mm, the last two measurements would have to be taken as 9 inches by 1 inch, and the whole lot back-calculated into cubic feet. To be honest, I can’t remember whether the length still had to be in Imperial, or whether that to had to be back calculated from metric to imperial. Either way, to a young carpenter all the mental conversions from metric feet – The ‘old boys’ in the trade would order not 5.4 m of anything, but 18 metric feet, Even though, at such a length, there was quite some disparity between 18 feet and 5.4 m. However, that seems to be the only way some of the older carpenters could try to get their heads around the oh-so-confusing business of decimalisation! They didn’t seem to realise that they were simply creating more confusion than ever. And the business of being billed for lengths of timber that must be divisible by three, remains an absurdity. It is an irrelevance, and there must, surely, be an understanding that this last vestige of imperial measurement should be removed once and for all. After all, all other building materials are now in decimal units. i’m not entirely sure about plasterboard anymore, however.

    Certainly for a very long time it was sold in sheets that were not 1.2 m x 2.4 – the closest to the old 4‘ x 8‘ – but metric in one dimension, and still in imperial in the other, as virtually all the housing stock in the early days of decimalisation still had joists and rafters at the old 12 or 16 or 24 inch centres, So that in theory the fitting or replacement of any plasterboard Could be accommodated using the material in the imperial rotation, whilst the metric dimension was fine for new build, with 300, 500, 600 or 800 mm. Although it was never always convenient to use sheets of plasterboard in the rotation needed to fit the existing timber work was built at Imperial OR metric centres! And nobody wanted to spend a day having to trim 10 or 15 or 20 mm of the edge of a whole sheet of plasterboard just to make it fit. sadly, this still goes on.

    Perhaps strangely, I have always very much enjoyed knowing all the old imperial measurements, including some rather arcane ones, because I like numbers! But I am always soundly metric in every day dealings, and still find myself Bemused when needing to convert a measurement for somebody younger than me into something imperial, because I don’t understand that 183 cm equates to their old fashioned 6 feet… even my own kids, in their 30s, measure their height in feet and inches, and mostly their weight in stones and pounds. I certainly never encouraged the use of these old measurements, so they can only have got it from their own contemporaries. Where will it all end?!


  2. Timber is sold in lengths of multiples of 0.3 m to fit in with a standard for co-ordination of measurements in buildings. This is tghe reason why most kitchen appliances are approximately 59 cm wide – so they fit into this system with a little clearance on each side.
    In the early 1970s, soon after timber went over to this standard, the expression “metric foot” was sometimes used. There were customer complaints about this. People thought they were being sold short measure. Also, if they asked for feet and received metric feet, they could find they had something slightly too short for purpose.
    Nowadays, thankfully, timber on sale is labelled with all dimensions metric, so there is no confusion. I have no problem with multiples of 0.3 cm because I am used to it.
    Bob describes the multiple 0.3 cm as un-decimal-like, but it is interesting that this idea has cropped up in the world of finance. When the UK converted to decimal currency in 1971, it was suggested that staff annual salaries should be expressed in multiples of three. So a salary of, say, £1 700 per year would be “adjusted” to £1 701 to make it divisible by three. The reason was so that it could be divided exactly by 12, to give a monthly salary (to an accuracy of £0.25). This practice is still common today – with much bigger figures of course.


  3. When timber which was previously called 2×4 [inches] is sold today, it is labelled as 47mm x 95mm. Everybody knows that 2 inches is 51mm, so what has happened? The reason is quite simple – in pre-metric and pre-EU days, UK law allowed vendors of planed timber to quote the size of the timber before planing. Thus, a piece of timber with a thickness of 2 inches (or 51mm) would lose 4mm during the planing process (Of course the supplier kept the shavings and probably sold them on to a hardboard manufacturer). EU rules however required that you paid for what you got, in this case a piece of timber with a thickness of 47mm, not 51 mm.


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