Kids don’t count

Two recent Channel 4 Dispatches programmes entitled “Kids Don’t Count” sought to demonstrate just that. But if you saw the programmes and are a regular reader of Metric Views, you may have wondered if the programmes overlooked the real problem.

Alan Young, who has been mathematics teacher for three decades, has written to Metric Views as follows:

“As I watched the programmes, it began to dawn on me that the problem is much worse than even I had thought. When I was young, even though I lived on a council estate and I now see my childhood home as an educational desert, we did nevertheless do quite a lot of computation at home, albeit in imperial units. We used to measure our heights and mark them on the wall. We worked out how much taller mum and dad were than my brother and me. We weighed things when my mother cooked and so on. In other words, we were able to build at home on what we had been taught at school.

Now, when children come home and say they weigh 35 kg and their height is 1.35 metres, the reply from mum or dad is that they are 9 stone 7 pounds and 5 ft 8 in tall. It is impossible to do the calculations that we so enjoyed doing at home. Children learn to cook in metric units at school, parents use imperial units. Gone are a multitude of opportunities for calculation and the reinforcement of their mathematics.

Not only that, but when you think about it in detail, virtually the whole of the Primary syllabus is based on, or derived from, measurement. The typical SAT question of, ‘What is the cost of 5 metres of something at 56p per metre?’ is an obvious example, but even something like 156.5 divided by 3 equates to, ‘The total body mass of three children is 156.5 kg. What is the average body mass?’

Without the opportunity to practice measurement using only one system of measurements, children find it difficult to see the relevance of the sums they are required to calculate and are consequently not improving their skills as children elsewhere in the world are. Like most things mathematical, this is accumulative.

Despite not having had this practice, they are then expected to do calculations that no children anywhere else in the world are expected to do such as convert degrees Celsius to degree Fahrenheit and kilometres to miles.

Neither of the two Dispatches programmes even hinted at the root cause I am suggesting and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is the real problem because it is the one big thing that is unique to this country. We have been in this mess for some forty years now and that is about one and half generations, which just about covers most of the primary teachers currently teaching in our schools.”

So if Alan is right, how did we get into this mess?

Our forbears were well aware of the link between industry and education. The Factory Act of 1802 required that during the first four years of their apprenticeship, children employed by the owners of the newly arising factories were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The Elementary Education Act 1870 established district school boards all over the country whose duty was to provide facilities for the elementary education of all children not otherwise receiving it. In reality, these boards ensured that the work force attracted to the rapidly expanding industrial towns could read, count and measure. And the changeover to metric in schools began in 1974, just nine years after the announcement in Parliament that “… British Industries on a broadening front should adopt metric units sector by sector …”.

The respected educationalist, Dr Tagg, wrote in 1968 about metrication, “Education of children is a process not limited to schools, and measures used in the home will need to be changed to keep in step with those used in school or there will be a conflict of ideas between the two.” He added, “It is in the kitchen that a great many children have their first experience of weighing flour and butter and measuring volumes of water or milk.”

Alas, his words went unheeded, and the importance for education of the world beyond school received little attention in the ensuing 35 years. During a broadcast of BBC “Question Time” in February 2006, politicians from UKIP and the Conservative and Labour Parties were asked if the UK’s road signs should be converted to metric. All said “No”. None prefaced his or her answer with, “We realise that this muddle is damaging our children’s education, but on balance …”. Indeed, if you review recent TV and radio programmes concerning the metric changeover, you will scarcely find any mention of education. Those you find are likely to be unhelpful, for example Philip Schofield on ”This Morning” saying that there is no connection between what his kids learn about measurement at school and what they do at home.

This lack of appreciation of the importance of the link between the measurement units taught in school and those used elsewhere was further illustrated in December 2008 when the Minister responsible for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills boasted “Government saves the pint and the mile”

So, how much could joined-up government save?

In 2004, UKMA suggested in its report “A very British mess” that much teaching of numeracy and measurement is wasted since kids “have little opportunity to practise their skills outside school”. Now Dispatches shows that “kids don’t count”. So how much could this be really costing?

Estimating is difficult, but it is clear that the sums involved are large. The Office of National Statistics gives the budget for education for the UK  in 2009-10 as £88 billion (yes, billion not million), but this includes everything from nurseries to universities. To narrow the field, we may look at the education budgets for 2009-10 for Haringey and Kent County Councils (two very different education authorities) which each give a figure of about £700 per head of population per year for their delegated schools budgets, that is the costs of running primary and secondary schools. For the UK as a whole, this gives a total of about £40 billion per year for primary and secondary education in the public sector. To put this in perspective, a 1.5% saving of this total would pay the total cost of changing speed and distance road signs in the UK in less than one year, based on the DfT’s hugely inflated estimate, and would at a stroke remove one of the principal causes of the “conflict of ideas” between school and elsewhere.

Still not sure? Alan Young explains his thoughts on his web site, His flash movie “It’s worse than I thought” should help to convince you.

While you are on Dr Metric’s web site, do listen to the “Revealing Sound bite” from Paul (“British now living in Australia”) which demonstrates that change is possible.

Finally, if you are a parent, concerned about your child or children’s progress in mathematics at school, then try using more metric measures at home. Dr Metric has some tips.

UKMA’s YouTube channel, has a selection of clips from about twenty five broadcasts from the past decade, including both “Question Time” and “This Morning”.


‘Metrication’ edited by FW Kellaway
‘Chapter 5. Metrication and the teacher’. E D Tagg MA PhD. p. 110. Penguin. 1968.

‘A very British mess’. para 3.5 (g) and (h). UKMA. 2004.

30 thoughts on “Kids don’t count”

  1. I’m confused by Alan Young here.

    Most of today’s parents of primary-school age children (while Philip Schofield is an exception) are in their 20s or 30s, and hence will only ever have been taught metric units – and hence have a pretty good idea of what a gram and a metre and a litre are when their kids ask, and do temperatures in Celsius.

    What he says was doubtless true for the first 20 years of his teaching career, but I can’t see how it can be true at this point in time…


  2. I tutor “A level” Physics and I find that many of my students are not very familiar with SI. If there is one subject at school level where students should be familiar with SI units, it is physics.

    One example was a student, who in response to a problem in his text book, told me that he was “six foot” tall. I asked him what that was in metric units. He guessed “2 metres”. I handed him a 300mm/12in ruler and asked him what a foot was in metric units. He measured his foot!


  3. As metric educated children grow up they adapt to an imperial world when they leave school and largely forget their learning. Their grasp of measurement is superficial for all the reasons highlighted in the article and end up perpetuating the problem when they become parents themselves.

    Metric education alone will not convert future generations. This is now being made even worse by the teaching of conversions without explaining why the metric system is better and encouraging its use in daily life.

    (hopefully this answers the point made by John B).


  4. I’ve come to the opinion that much of this is down to parents. Most children will use whatever they hear their parents using… and parents will generally use what their parents used and so on. While todays parents use feet, inches, stones and pounds in the home so will their children.

    More needs to be done to encourage parents to think about their children’s education when they do things at home and that using metric will help their children in years to come. Unfortunately it’s fast becoming one of those subjects in school about which people say “I won’t use this when I leave school so what’s the point in learning it?”.

    Another step might be to reverse the change in the national curriculum that forces teachers to teach metric-imperial conversion… I can’t see that happening in a hurry though.


  5. What can be done to reinforce metric measures at home? A little thought may help!

    Let’s say the children measure their height and weight in metric terms at school. The homework is to find out the height and weight of two other people at home. It doesn’t matter if the child comes back with the old measures as long as they are converted into kilos and metres in the classroom. So when Johnnie tells you that his dad is 15 stone, the teacher (or, better, Johnnie) tells you that this is about 95 kg. Similarly, if young Suzie tells you that her grandma is 5 ft exactly, that means that Grannie is about 152 cm.

    In this way, the two systems of measurement will help to reinforce each other, just as we reinforce our knowledge of French by using an English-French dictionary.

    I learnt Celsius temperatures by learning 10 = 50, 20 = 68, 30 = 86, 37 = blood heat, 40 = 104. Gradually, the old measurements fell away and the new measurements took over. So my advice is not to treat the old measurements as the enemy. When the students use the old units, use them as aids to understanding the metric measurements. However, in the school context, always use the metric measurements. Then the children will learn them quite naturally.


  6. The cost issue is as large as this article says. I just ran some numbers through, and this is what I came up with. There are, according to the UK Dept for Education (DFE), 8.1 million primary and secondary school children in England. Extrapolating those figures to include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the total comes to just over 9.7 million. Let’s round it to 10 million to keep the numbers simple.

    Phelps in his study (going from memory here) reckoned that US kids wasted an aggregate of 6 months having to learn two measuring systems over their 13 years in primary and secondary education. That represents about 3.9% of their time. In the UK, much less time would be spent learning two systems in parallel, but SOME is spent (as Alex Bailey says above), so let’s assume 1/3rd of this figure, or 1.3%. That’s close to the 1.5% stated in the article.

    Now the population of the UK in 2007 was 61 million. It has gone up a bit – I’ve seen figures as high as 65 million, but 63 million is probably a reasonable number. At £700 a head, that comes to £44 billion. If 1.3% of that could be saved by not having to teach any imperial at all, then that amounts to a total of £573 million – EVERY YEAR. Based on 10 million school kids, that’s £57 wasted each year on each and every child having to be taught imperial conversions.

    That would pay for changing an awful lot of road signs….. The real tragedy of course that that 1.3% amounts to about 2.5 days a year of school time – 2.5 days that, every year, could be spent in teaching the kids something really useful.


  7. The issue here parallels what one finds when one language is taught in school but the rest of society speaks a different language. The child will grow up feeling more comfortable with the language of the home, friends, etc. and will feel that expressing themselves in that language (rather than the language of school) is more natural.

    A complete changeover and the resulting immersion is really the only practical solution (see Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa for the examples we recognize so well). The whole idea behind metricating road signs is to be a part of that complete changeover. Given a lack of will on the part of either the outgoing government or the incoming one to fully complete metrication, the most meaningful next step would be metrication of road signs as a way of publicly reinforcing the new system both psychologically and practically (as in, when you speak of a distance or a speed limit, you are more likely to repeat what you saw posted on the road sign).

    But as this thread attests to so well, the willingness of the government to maintain the muddle is the root cause of the mess. A combination of wisdom and courage on the part of Westminster would be a most refreshing and welcome change … and the wait for it will likely be a long one, alas.


  8. Dear All,

    Congratulations to the writers of ‘Kids don’t count’. It is a gem that I will refer to often. It deserves a wider audience.

    A letter that I collected this some years ago – author unknown – might be relevant in this context.

    Dear Editor,

    I am 40. I have never been taught Imperial measures in school and yet I am surrounded by people who talk about inches, pints, miles and ounces. I find it quite obscene that I have to learn about measures that were declared moribund before I could walk.

    Why did the government listen to the old stick-in-the-muds? It didn’t happen with decimal currency because it couldn’t. Talk to a twenty year old about shillings and he will think you are talking about Austria, before the Euro. This is how it should be. The past is a different country, we have moved on. But why did we allow some conservative old fogeys to keep on talking about their miles, pints, ounces, stones, feet and Fahrenheit? We should have buried these things in the 1960s when we left the shillings and 240 pence in the pound nonsense.

    Tens, hundreds and thousands. So easy to calculate. So much easier than twelve pennies in a shilling, twenty shillings in a pound, sixteen ounces in a pound, fourteen pounds in a stone. Not to mention gills, chains, rods, poles, fathoms, bushels and firkins.

    A cube 100 millimetres by 100 millimetres by 100 millimetres defines a volume of one litre, if you fill it with water it has a mass of one kilogram. If you raise the temperature to 100 degrees the water boils. Cool it to zero degrees and it freezes. This is simple, this is elegant, and this is beautiful.

    The oldies say: ‘Don’t talk to me about them kilo-whatsit things laddie I think in inches’.

    But, the oldies are trying to force me to think in old measures too — despite the fact that all the old measures were scheduled for replacement four years before I started primary school.

    It is time we buried the imperial system. The only way do do it is to be draconian about it. Do not allow people to ask for, demand or even talk about imperial measures.

    If you don’t draw the line like that, the old fogeys will force it down our necks for ever more. Why must my children, and probably theirs as well as our grandchildren and great grandchildren, have to learn about pounds and inches just because some older people will not make a little effort?

    Name and address supplied

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia


  9. Being born in 1993, I was educated in a mix of metric and imperial. At primary school, however, all our lessons were in metric, but our teacher taught us how many ounces in a pound, etc. and being told (as I live in a very rural location) that imperial is what you’ll use outside of school. We were only ever taught our height and weight in imperial. Indeed everyone did, and still does, talk in imperial. Parents and grandparents only used imperial.

    We used to get most of our fruit and veg from a local farmer, who only (and still does) price by the pound only. He refuses to use kilogrammes.

    Because of that, I could easily tell you that there are 10 mm in a cm and 1,000 ml in a litre, but not actually how long it actually was. In the summer, Centigrade isn’t used. Even most of my friends only understand Fahrenheit properly in the summer.

    So before you go on about how only old people use the imperial system, young people use it as well, and it looks set to stay that way for a good time to come.


  10. Bob’s contribution above is an example demonstrating what others have observed here.

    Young people’s learning of the metric system is being undermined by the persistence of imperial outside of lessons and (it seems) the poor attitude of some who are supposed to teach it.


  11. Bob’s story is sobering as it clearly shows that there is no imperative to learn metric among the young. It bears out my observation a year or so ago that while skiing in Bulgaria, a party of teenagers in my ski-group caused huge delays on the first day as they didn’t know their height and weight in metric measurements. These teenagers were surprised when I told them that the UK IS a metric country! This was similar to the experience at the Snowdome in Milton Keynes, where exasperated staff at the ski hire desk continually had to convert for the correct fittings.

    The simple fact is of course that Britain IS metric, its the only legal system of measures in most cases. I personally would refuse to by any produce in lbs – if people are that ignorant they don’t deserve my custom.


  12. I’ll second what philh and michael have said but come at it from the other direction.

    Although Canada officially switched to metric back in the 70’s (including road signs), the continued massive presence of US Customary units here in the States (along with a lack of political will in Ottawa) have kept Canada in an even more muddled state than the UK.

    Nonetheless, one area where Canada has been consistently using metric is temperature; all radio, TV, and newspaper announcements use degrees Celsius, the schools use Celsius, and that’s what people use at home, in the street, at work, etc.

    The result is that the Canadians who have come down here in the States to work that I have encountered at various companies where I have been an employee have consistently told me that what they had the hardest time with was trying to understand and get comfortable with degrees Fahrenheit.

    This goes to show the power of consistent society-wide usage, particular as it affects the young generation that isn’t exposed to anything else. Would that the government in the UK recognized this and fashioned policy accordingly.


  13. Over the past fifty years, manufacturing industry’s share of UK GDP has shrunk from one third to one tenth. In particular, during the 1980’s, the arrival of North Sea gas and oil took pressure off the UK’s balance of payments, resulting in a switch from exporting to importing and from production to services, the latter often funded by the tax payer. For many young people, it became a choice between unemployment, burger flipping or selling doubtful insurance.

    Now the UK’s oil and gas production is in decline, the pound is on the slide (from $1.95 to $1.45 and from €1.80 to €1.15), bankers are in disgrace, cuts in public services are inevitable, and there is much talk of “rebalancing the economy”, “rebuilding a new economy from the rubble of the old” and “shifting the focus towards genuine value creation”.

    Perhaps numeracy and measurement skills rather than degrees in media studies or public administration will soon be in demand by employers, and be rewarded accordingly. And then, Alan, you will find you are knocking on an open door.


  14. I recently posted on here about my frustration with younger colleagues at work who always refer to imperial measurements when they are referring to their own personal height or weight, or indeed when they ordering fixtures and stock.

    Breaking this cycle is difficult, as many cultural references around them eg books, films, and TV are often American and therefore don’t contain metric references. Weightwatchers, which many people use in the UK, always refer to height in feet & inches and weight in lbs. And when they go to buy clothes in the shops, they are often sized in imperial measurements.

    This is what we need to start breaking down – I genuinely don’t believe in most peoples cases that they are rigidly opposed to metric. They just talk in what they see is the common language, which is often Imperial.

    What I cannot understand is that when we sell things by weight or by length here in the UK, its using metric. But when I am purchasing a ready-made garment, we revert to Imperial – where is the consistency in that?!

    We need a ‘death date’ for all of these old Imperial measurements so that we can get just one system that any sane country needs.


  15. Here is a typical example of the use of Fahrenheit in summer. From today’s Daily Mail Online: “86f today as Britain bakes (but make the most of it as the Bank Holiday’s NOT looking so good)”.
    Read more:
    I think that the same thing happened in The Netherlands when we changed from Fahrenheit to Celsius in the first half of the last century. My parents married during the blazing summer of 1947 when the temperature reached 38 degrees Celsius. People still spoke of a 100 degree day.
    When the Fahrenheit scale had gone, some physics books wasted time for pupils by making them work out many conversions between the two scales (and between the outdated mmHg and millibar, now hPa). Not all of them: my brothers physics book with a pronounced pro-SI stance gave some information about the Fahrenheit scale and had only one conversion for those pupils who wanted to do extra work: 50 F = ….. C. And if you know the trick: just deduct 40 from 50!
    Fahrenheit lived and worked for many years in The Netherlands, so his scale was adopted in our country. He is buried at The Hague. The scientific museum at Leiden has one of his original thermometers, restored and in working order. I saw it: the thermostat on the wall showed 20 degrees and Fahrenheit’s thermometer showed 68 degrees.


  16. Confucius said:
    If I hear, I will forget
    If I see, I will remember
    If I do, I will understand

    By failing to provide our young people with the opportunity to “do” the metric system at home and in the playground they will not understand it. Since our schools are not teaching the imperial system, our young people will not understand that either. No wonder we are turning out an innumerate generation.


  17. Han, I wouldn’t expect anything less of the Dail Wail, along with the very similar Daily Express. Both of these so-called newspapers believe that Metrication is Anti-British.

    On a happier note, all the BBC weather forecasts I saw this weekend referred only to deg C. And ‘Dr Who’ referred frequently to metres and kilometres in this weeks episode; well done BBC!


  18. Thanks Han, I never realized the Netherlands used Fahrenheit until so recently!


  19. I recently came across some archive from the Singaporean metrication programme in the 1970s. One of the campaigns was “Teach your parents metric”. School children were not only expected to learn the system, but to teach it to the older generation. Needless to say, the tactic worked!


  20. A simple way to promote the metric system is to push for height in centimetres be added to driving licences. If this was accepted it would help familiarise the public with their height as measured in metric units.


  21. I’m a little late to this party, but wanted to echo Martin Vlietstra’s observation that A-Level science students are very weak on units generally.

    In my opinion, though, a major part of the problem is nothing to do with units themselves, but simply overuse of calculators. Students are now so dependent on them that they will often use them for absurdly simple calculations: on one occasion, I watched in bemusement as one A-Leve chemistry student searched futilely in their bag for their calculator when a question required them to divide 240 by 40. Because of this calculator-dependence, they’re not in the habit of writing out solutions to numerical questions step-by-step, even though this would ensure full method marks in exams (and it’s all about exams these days!). Not only does this allow rounding errors to creep in, but students don’t become properly proficient at manipulating units, and often fail to spot barn-door mistakes like unit inconsistencies in their equations.

    The irony is that SI units are so simple to manipulate that this sort of problem should never arise – and I don’t think it would arise so often if students had to write out their calculations.


  22. Peter,

    I think you have hit on a key, but it is not just calculators.

    When I was educated, we had to write out the work and it had to include units. Including the units allowed “units analysis” which helped greatly in knowing when to divide and when to multiply.

    Calculators only handle the numeric part of a quantity, and are part of the problem. However the problem has at least two more elements:
    *Improper instruction (and checking of the student’s work)
    *At least in the US, the pressure for national or standardized testing has pushed most tests to multiple choice. Method doesn’t count, only the answer, because only the answer is seen (by a computer looking at spots on a paper).

    I learned in the slide rule era, and had to rough out a problem to “almost one significant figure” to get the order of magnitude. The slide rule would then give me three figures. Still, I DON’T want to go back to that, but something has been lost from the methods of instruction.


  23. I certainly appreciate Peter’s remarks. A friend of mine who works as a civil engineer at CalTrans (California DfT) remarked how the young engineers were so dependent on the computer to provide them their answers that they could not discern when the computer produced a roadway that no normal car could stay on (through a curve) while maintaining the established speed limit for that stretch of road (particularly when the roadway was wet or the car’s tires were dodgy).

    We should definitely take advantage of the coherence of the SI to promote a deeper and genuine understanding of the physical world.


  24. Can anyone explain why the BBC is now giving rainfall in inches on regional and national forecasts? I really do not understand – they used cm for snowfall in the winter just gone to my great surprise, but mm has been used for years for rain. There is no conversion done by the weatherman/woman to metric for this, but they will helpfully tell you what 20 degrees Celsius is in Fahrenheit!


  25. There are clearly a variety of factors that contribute to the problem of numeracy in society. It remains a valid argument however that the improper handling of measurement will exacerbate the problem.

    Some criticise the metric system by suggesting that its simplicity has the same deskilling effect as calculators alledgedly do for mental arithmetic. This can be countered by pointing out that its logical simplicty has the effect of improving understanding by reducing the concept to its essentials. This is not the same as masking it by using a device to do the work for you.

    We all want to see changes to tackle the problems referred to in earlier comments. But getting rid of the unnecessary two-systems muddle is a simple and practicable first step. There is no excuse for ignoring it.


  26. Ref the BBC and their metric/imperial dithering – always drop them a line via their website. Likewise let them know when they get it right! I have noticed that their notation will depend on the presenter – Carol on BBC Breakfast seems to convert to inches after mm. Our local news (BBC Oxford) will very often use metric measurements for most of their broadcast.

    I do believe that all factual broadcasting should use metric measurments and was most pleased to hear metric used throughout a programme on trains by Dan Cruickshank on Channel 5. The Discovery Channel use metric throughout – even on a broadcast last night explaining how weighing machines were made. The footage that was being referred to was by the metric narrative was actually regarding the assembly of USC weighing machines in the USA!

    Finally, my partners’ 21 year old cousin has recently had a baby, and was asking today how much 110g was in lbs! I do despair of this obsession with babies weight in Imperial measures – but fear its because its the only way that people feel that they can make their babies measurements understood and ‘meaningful’ to others.


  27. Inches of rainfall from the BBC? How utterly counter-productive! Are they bound and determined to make the muddle even worse? More interestingly, does anyone have any idea how this has come about?


  28. Last night on the BBC they described the nightmarish plight of the Chilean miners trapped underground.

    The BBC go out of their way to avoid having to express any factual measurements. The space the miners are sheltering in is described as ‘the size of a 1 bedroom apartment (its described on their news website as 50 square metres). The escape tunnel that is being drilled is described on the TV news as being ‘the size of a bicycle wheel’! in fact its 65 cm!

    This dumbing down of facts is endemic on the BBC. It doesn’t have an official view on metric any more, leaving presenters to use what they feel is appropriate and that they feel comfortable with. One of the flagship programmes is ‘Top Gear’ with the straight talking Jeremy Clarkson and his chums frequently referring to the Imperial system – any reference to metric is usually with some snide comment about Napolean!


  29. If the presenters of “Top Gear” think that Napolean was a champion of the metric system they are very much mistaken. In fact he passed legislation returning France to traditional measures in 1812. The metric system was restored as the official system in France decades later well after his death.


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