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.