Are our schools entrenching the very British mess?

A recent incident caused me to wonder whether our schools, far from helping to resolve the UK’s two systems muddle, are actually consolidating and perpetuating it.

I was wanting to rent some storage space temporarily and approached a firm that offers this service.  I spoke to a youthful-sounding and well-spoken receptionist who was able to deal with my inquiry efficiently until we reached the subject of the volume of space I required.

“About 1500 litres”, I said.
“What!?” she exclaimed.
I repeated “1500 litres” (I know I should perhaps have said “one and a half cubic metres”, but I didn’t).
“Do you mean metres?” she asked, trying to be helpful without being condescending.
“No, 1500 litres.”
“Oh, we don’t store liquids” was her clinching reply.

To be fair to the young woman, she was working in an imperial environment, as the firm  describes their lockers, cupboards and containers in terms of square feet (though presumably they mean cubic feet). All the same it is a bit of a shocker that the products of over 30 years of metric education don’t make the connection between a volume of liquid and a volume of 3-dimensional space.

This has led me to wonder whether our schools are in fact simply reinforcing in our children the dysfunctional approach to measurement that prevails in the adult world in the UK.  Consider the following.

Although the teaching of metric units has been mandatory in state schools since 1974, the  National Curriculum for England was revised in the 1990s to include knowledge of approximate equivalents of imperial quantities. The following examples of lesson plans for 11-year olds shows how children are being taught to convert between kilometres and miles (in both directions).

(Note incidentally that the guidance wrongly calls SI symbols abbreviations)

Similarly, at Key Stage 3 (up to 14-year-olds) children are expected to know rough metric equivalents of pounds, feet, miles, pints and gallons.  See the following link from the 1999 version of the National Curriculum.

In practice, there is anecdotal evidence that some teachers go well beyond this, teaching the imperial equivalent of kilograms, metres etc and even how to convert from ounces to pounds and pints to gallons (imperial, of course).

It is clear that a considerable amount of teaching time is spent in teaching children how to cope with two systems.  Arguably, this is a pragmatic response to the sad reality that in the UK in 2008, in order to function properly, an adult needs to be fluent in both systems.  But how much better it would be  for children, teachers and society generally if they did not have to waste time in this way.  The cost must be horrifying.

But it gets worse.  Although metric units are prescribed for maths and science lessons (and perhaps for home economics?), there is no such guidance for other lessons or extra-curricular activities.  From anecdotal evidence it is believed that many teachers default to imperial in other subjects such as geography or on the sports field.  Children therefore learn by example that imperial units are normal, especially for personal weight and height, whereas metric units are for science and maths.

If this true, then it undermines the argument that society will gradually shift to general use of metric units as older non-metric-educated people die out and younger people take over.  In practice, society is becoming divided along educational and class lines.  The better educated cope reasonably well with two systems and often fail to see the problem, whereas the less educated (who also tend to be the less well off) struggle with two systems and generally use imperial units since those are what their parents and their peer group use.  Disraeli’s two nations in weights and measures.

Our education system could play a part in resolving this situation, but it fails to do so.  As a step in the right direction, UKMA believes that teachers should be expected to use exclusively metric units throughout the school’s activities. In this way, the learning in the science and maths lessons will be reinforced rather than undermined.

Oh, and by the way, I didn’t rent the storage space from that firm.

28 thoughts on “Are our schools entrenching the very British mess?”

  1. The US federal department of education, a few years ago, estimated the cost of educating their children in two systems (even the US now includes metric education in almost all curricula). It came up with the number of $17 billion annually in 1996 (probably about $30 billion today or $100 every year for every man, woman and child in the US). The study was entitled “Education System Benefits of U.S. Metric Conversion”, by Richard P. Phelps, published in Evaluation Review, February 1996. I would imagine a proportionally similar figure would be spent in the UK. What a waste of resources – not just the money, but on the time taken to teach kids obsolete imperial when it could be better spent on more important things. Another of the two systems’ hidden costs.


  2. Even in a fully metric country like Russia, litres are firmly associated with liquids because that’s what they are used almost exclusively for. Dry substances are more commonly measured by mass. For most other sorts of everyday things, length/width/height are usually preferred. Well, trunk volume is commonly quotes in litres in car specs, and that’s about it. No wonder a person from a not-so-metric country was confused.

    Note that the recommended metric unit for volume in SI is cubic metres, or derivatives (cm^3, dm^3), and indeed that’s what is widely used in science and technology. By the way, I couldn’t visualize 1500 litres until I converted them into 1.5 cubic metres.


  3. In Richard Phelps article (quoted by John Frewen-Lord) an estimate was made that teaching and testing two methods of measurement cost an extra year of mathematical education for every child in every school in the USA. This was where most of the cost was involved in the metrication upgrade.

    This was also one of the issues that was not considered in Australian education. No provision was made for the reduction in class time provision that was due to simplification of teaching only one method of measurement — the metric system — in all of our schools.

    About 85 % of Australian crafts, professions, and trades use a simplified metric system that includes these 11 units and these relationships:

    1000 grams = 1 kilogram and 1000 kilograms = 1 tonne
    1000 millimetres = 1 metre and 1000 metres = 1 kilometre
    1000 millilitres = 1 litre and 1000 litres = 1 cubic metre

    1 metre x 1 metre = 1 square metre
    1 metre x 1 metre x 1 metre = 1 cubic metre

    This was too simple, and more importantly far too quickly taught for Australian teachers who tended to react to this lack of planning by padding the allotted school mathematics time with two new, and unplanned, curriculum items:

    1 Conversions from all of the old pre-metric measures to metric and SI units.

    2 Refitting SI with centimetres, decimetres, decametres, and hectometres and then creating a world of conversions for these as well.

    Australian teachers are now at odds with the rest of Australians in that they prepare their students for a measurement world that has not existed — outside schools — since the 1970s.


  4. With the mention here of the Richard Phelps article and the estimate of an extra year of mathematical education required it seems ironic that today we get the announcement that pupils starting secondary school today (including my own son) are to be kept in school for an extra year.

    What a senseless waste of time and money!


  5. We should indeed hew to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, !!!


  6. I had an instance a few years ago when tutoring “A� Level student in physics. One of the examples that he had to work out was “If an atom was the size of an apple, how tall would you be?� We quickly established the size of an atom (as a fraction of a nanometre), the diameter of an atom in millimetres, but he gave me his height as being “six foot�. I then asked him what that was in metric units and he guessed at two metres. Handing him a 300 mm ruler that had both metric and imperial units, I asked him what a foot was in metric units. He promptly used the ruler to measure his foot!

    His score – 10/10 for resourcefulness, but 0/10 for his understanding of measurements.


  7. Although this was not really the point of the article, Anton Gavrilov’s comment needs a response. Although the metre is the SI base unit, litres are accepted by the BIPM for use with SI and they are widely used as measures of (non-liquid) 3d space or capacity.

    Common examples of this usage (in addition to car boots, mentioned by Anton) include:

    fridges and freezers
    suitcases (see
    car engines
    vacuum cleaner dustbags
    EU labels (mandatory)

    So it was reasonable to expect an employee of a storage company to understand litres.

    However, I hope this does not divert the discussion away from the main issue, which is whether our schools are perpetuating and reinforcing the very Britush mess (VBM).


  8. In my opinion it isn’t the schools. It is business and industry that perpetuates the muddle. The muddle works for them. The muddle allows average and below average people to be unable to cope with measurements no matter what the units are. As a result they make poor choices when it comes to making purchases and will always decide in favour of business thus increasing their profits. Measurement confusion in the marketplace predates the invention of the metric system and was the major reason it was invented. Not so much that governments cared whether people were cheated or not, but for the lost tax revenue from merchants cheating the government.

    Inside of industry, no muddle exists, as companies operate in one standard. But, a measurement muddle at their doors can be an advantage to them. If a young person interviewing for a position in a company expresses or demonstrates an inability to function in SI units, the company can see that this person is not right for the job. This keeps the undesirables away.

    Most people don’t see the muddle as hurting them or their living standard, and most likely never will. As long as they are satisfied with it, then what can be done to end it? There would have to be a campaign to educate the masses that the muddle costs the population and national economy a progressive living standard. There won’t be any and the result will be that the muddle will continue indefinitely.


  9. There is a preference among the public for intuitive systems, as evidenced by the success of Nokia mobile phones and Windows over DOS.

    A rational measurement system is not an intuitive idea. If it were, it would have been there in the birth of measurement systems in Mesopotamia about six thousand years ago. Instead, we had to wait until the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for proposals to emerge from the scientific establishment.

    In contrast, customary measurement systems are intuitive, as their proponents frequently remind us. That was a strength in the days before universal education, and has now contributed to their downfall. Before 1824, Britain had six different gallons for different purposes, and, until recently, had the square foot, the pole, the acre and the square mile for measuring area. In the US today, there is a wide range of measures for volume including the bushel, the pint, the pint (dry), the barrel and the cubic foot, with few obvious relationships between them. Thank goodness we have moved on from much of this in the UK.

    But people will use intuition when knowledge is lacking. Poorly understood principles get forgotten, lack of familiarity makes matters worse, and the existence of two measurement systems side-by-side adds to the confusion. So we assume that, because ‘yd’ is an abbreviation of yard, then ‘cm’ is an abbreviation of centimetre, and that, because the pint is used for milk and beer, then the litre can only be used for liquids too.

    Teachers are, or should, be aware that SI is not just imperial with different units. It is a ‘new’, different, hugely successful, and far-from-intuitive way of looking at measurement of almost everything. By being required to introduce equivalents and conversions of common units, schools may be obscuring or confusing this message, with unfortunate consequences, as illustrated in the article.


  10. The changes in the NC mentioned in the article co-incide with a general movement toward vocational studies for older students as an alternative to the traditional academic route.
    This reflects a change in perception of the purpose and aims of school education, i.e. more emphasis on ’employability’, and less emphasis on the ideal of education for its own sake.
    A possible consequence of this is the passive acceptance of the persistent use of imperial in everyday life and the need to accomodate it.

    Teachers themselves are also going in the same direction for two reasons:
    (1) They are told what to teach more so now than ever before with the introduction of the NC itself.
    (2) They worry far more about exam results which can now affect their salary and career prospects. So if exams assess students ability to convert between imperial and metric they have no choice but to go along with it and make sure the students learn it.

    Teachers are also human and just as much a victim of the measurement muddle as everyone else. They can’t see the wood for the trees either and are just as influential on students as their parents.

    The way forward is to introduce an element into the curriculum that shows the advantages of metric over traditional measures in a more explicit fashion. The present NC seems to rely on this being implied by setting problems in metric and treating conversion as a separate exercise.

    Much more also needs to be done to show the relevence of mathematics and science to practical everyday problems. Students (particularly the older ones) are often disenchanted with the subjects because they seem a purely academic and pointless exercise.

    Hence they tar the metric system with the same brush!


  11. The example exercise described by Martin above is an interesting one. Suppose it was rephrased as an atom being the size of a billiard ball. A standard ball is (according to World Snooker) 52.5 mm in diameter, but for simplicity we’ll call it 50 mm.
    One of the advantages of metric is the ease with which one can convert between units expressed in prefix notation with that of exponential (or scientific if you prefer).
    A carbon atom is about 150 pm in diameter. Scaling it up to 50 mm means magnifying it by 50E-3/150E-12 = (50/150)E(-3+12) = 0.33E9 = 3.3E8
    Suppose we take a person of average height, say 1.7 m
    Then such a man becomes 1.7 x 3.3E8 m = 5.61E8 m tall,
    i.e. 561E6 m = 561 Mm
    (or 561 000 km if you prefer)
    The distance to the Moon is about 380 000 km!


  12. My general view is that metric conversion in the UK has stagnated. It might be a good idea for an independent study to be commissioned which investigates all aspects of the costs of completing the metric conversion and the costs of maintaining the current status quo. My personal belief is that the UK would save money in the long term by completing conversion now.

    If the study finds that full conversion offers economic and social benefits, it should be published and awareness of the current muddle should be advertised to all. An independent, unbiased survey could then be carried out once people have heard the full facts.

    It might also be worth getting an organisation such as the Institute of Advanced Motorists on board, who have considerable sway with government organisations, in the benefits and realistic costs of completing road conversion. They can then help as another voice in the call for change.


  13. The conclusion must surely be that changing the schooling system is not the only education needed when you change a country’s measurement system. Children learn from many places outside school – parents and grandparents; peers; books; TV (much of it from the non-metric USA); etc. You need to educate the adult population, not only in the mechanics, but in the benefits of the new system. You also need a consistent approach – not this gradual nonsense that the British government still seems to think is the way to go. How can you teach someone to use metres to measure distance when the roads are still labelled in yards and 1760 yards?


  14. As a student still at secondary school, I thought I’d be able to shed some light on this subject. The fact that we are supposed to have been taught ‘rough metric equivalents’ of the old units before the age of fifteen surprises me, for not only have we never been taught them, our maths textbooks make no reference to imperial units whatsoever (except for, maybe, conversion calculations between Celsius and Fahrenheit, but even those are not intended to teach us how to convert between the two, but are just used as an example to practise arithmetic). In fact, the only time I recall non-metric units having been used in a lesson or textbook was in history lessons (where distances were frequently given in miles).

    That said, while I don’t think teachers are necessarily doing anything wrong, I think more could be done to actively encourage students to use metric units (particularly for their own height and weight, almost the only occasion in which they are still used by the younger generation). It was done in primary school, but secondary school students are very much influenced by adults in their use of old-style feet, inches, stones and pounds.


  15. It would be interesting to have more views from current school students on how they perceive the current metric muddle (aka “Very British Mess).


  16. I do a certain amount of tutoring – A Level physics and maths – so I am able to tell my students that I don’t do imperial units – but in those circumstances I am doing no more than my job.


  17. On BBC’s Have Your Say this last week, commenting on the CERN experiment, someone corrected the BBC’s Engineering Section that said that the experiment would use 400 000 litres of liquid helium – “enough to fill 1000 swimming pools”. As the person making the correction noted, that would be a mere 400 litres per pool – more of a paddling pool than a swimming pool. Again, another example of journalists’ complete ignorance of measurements in general, and the metric system in particular, all of which is a sad indictment on our education system. Going back to my previous comment, and as others have also commented. if we had just one simple metric system, more time could be spent teaching maths and measurements properly, and then perhaps our journalists, and everybody else, wouldn’t come out with such stupidities.


  18. It is fine for children to be taught to use metric for maths, physics and other scientific subjects. However they must be taught how to use the imperial system for general living, as it is more widespread in the UK. If kids today are taught their heights in metres only, when they leave school they will be stuck, the same going for road distances and weights.


  19. Tabitha, we live in a society that practises cultural apartheid – one system of units of measure for professionals and another for the person in the street. Why do you want to perpetuate that system?


  20. Tabitha Jones correctly identifies the issue of trying to have two incompatible measurement systems in the same country; but she fails to propose any solution (except that schools waste even more valuable time teaching both systems). As I said in my earlier comment, it is clearly not enough to teach metric measurement in schools and expect the system to “catch on”. Adults have a responsibility to re-educate themselves and to use metric exclusively in their daily lives. The government has key a role to play in leading this, but has, for 40 years, not faced up to its responsibilities.


  21. Tabitha, I’m not sure if you have been on any building sites recently or worked with any safety equipment but all modern requirements for safety require metric labelling. Height, weight, safe working load, distance, etc are all provided in metric units. No one seems to have any problems working with this.


  22. Tabitha – that is not a solution, but is perpetuating the problem. Other countries – Australia, Canada, South Africa and many others – have successfully made the transition, particularly on their roads, so why can’t the UK? If children are taught to use metric as part of their everyday living, not just in the laboratory, that will speed up the process for everyone. Yes, there will be a few people who will have trouble making the transition, but I bet they are fewer than you imagine. Why should the country be held to ransom by those few?


  23. In Australia, Canada, South Africa etc, the anti-metric lobby didn’t have the anti-EU card to play…


  24. The solution that Tabitha favours in in fact the solution that was imposed bij Napoleon in 1812 in France. Resistance to metrication in France was widespread and Napoleon was opposed to the metric system as well. His solution by the decree of 1812-02-12 was the establishment of metric for the professionals and the so-called Systeme Usuel, or Customary system, for the common people in the shop adn the street: ‘Accomodee au besoin du peuple’. It used the metre as standard, but then dividied it the same way as the yard is divided: 1 m = 3 feet, 1 foot = 12 inches. The pound of 500 g was also divided like its British avoirdupois counterpart. France lived through that muddle for 28 years and traders could cheat people at will. In 1840 January 1 France went metric for good, decreed by the metric law of 1837 July 4.


  25. I strongly believe that the use of the traditional English pint glass make drinking what are by the standards of the rest of the world, huge beer glasses is one of the causes of binge drinking. I Nottingham, at least, if a man orders a half pint, the barperson inevitably asks if you want a lady´s glass. Of course this is not the biggest cause of the British drinking problem, but banning glases over a certain size would be a good step and the 300 or 350 ml size would be a step forward.
    It is also time to put kilometers on all road signs erected as of now. Ripping down the old ones would be prohibitively expensive to do all at once, but painting the km on many of them with stencils might even be done by schools as part of maths projects. Pity the old signs don´t state the units used e.g. “Kirkby-in-Ashfield, 7”. Stones are the worst, impossible to convert to kg or even pounds. Ask a new Yorker if a 9 stone man his height is overweight and he´d have about as much an idea as I do…. Both Gerrmans and French both use the word “pound” to refer to 500g, though this is mainly older or rural folks and in any case, they´ll end up buying 600g or so using kg scales. My brother even thinks you might get rid of some of the opposition to the Euro by calling it a “pound” in English.


  26. I have to add, I have never lived anywhere but a metric nation (namely Australia and the former Czechoslovakia), and a request for 1500 litres of space would be met with just as puzzled looks in both of those nations as it was in the incident described. Though litres can be used for volume, this is usually exclusive to much smaller containers, about 60 litres max. Asking for 1500 litres of storage space is just asking for incomprehension.


  27. Oh, and Australian mathematics teachers no longer teach kids imperial at all, though it is sometimes encountered in textbooks for junior years as a “historical curiosity” (not part of the curriculum). Some Australian kids do use feet for heights up to about 10 metres, and feet and inches for their own height, but this is not that frequent and describing something in feet will definitely get noticed in conversation.


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