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, http://www.drmetric.net. 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, www.youtube.com/user/ukmetric 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.