Numeracy Counts

A recent report has stressed the importance of numeracy – and of raising the level of numeracy – both for people with learning difficulties and for people who are otherwise well qualified.  In this article Martin Vlietstra suggests that fully adopting the metric system would help to raise standards – and blames the Europhobic media for obstructing progress.

On 21st February 2011, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) published a report “Numeracy Counts” (  Their recommendations included:

  • [That] the government adopts a new approach to numeracy that focuses on how adults use it in everyday life and that it should be taught as such.
  • … that the development of adult numeracy, underpinned by a high-profile, media-led campaign, should be central to social policy.
  • … that numeracy provision should be available through a wider range of organisations … and not only education providers to encourage more flexible numeracy learning through bite-sized and informal provision.
  • While educators and policy makers speak readily of the skills, attitudes, behaviours of those with the weakest skills and fewest qualifications, they rarely focus on the numeracy competence of those who are other wise well qualified.

One of the arguments voiced by apologists for  imperial units is “metric is OK for those who are in science and engineering, but it is too complicated for ordinary people”. This type of argument – albeit that it is utterly perverse – causes a barrier to arise between those who have a high degree of numeracy and those who do not – those with a medium level of numeracy have trouble bridging the gap. Can the “man in the street” benefit from using metric units?

In the late 1930’s the Ordnance Survey introduced grid lines, now known as the OS grid onto their maps.  The grid lines were kilometre based as this allowed short measurements, such as street frontages to merge seamlessly into longer measurements such as the length of the High Street and then into yet longer distances between towns and so on.  In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s British road design was converted into metric units. Road maintenance workers have very little trouble working with such units – most of them are ordinary sorts of blokes (and sometimes girls), yet when they drive home, they have to switch to thinking in miles.  The result is that they have to compartmentalise their work and home lives, with one compartment seldom (at any rate as far as numeracy is concerned) reinforcing the other.  A coordinated move towards using one system of measure would certainly help those whose numeracy competence is low, but who are otherwise well qualified.

Some years ago I crossed Algeria, travelling from south to north on a commercial trans-Sahara tour. Once we got onto the tarred sections of road (which reached over 1000 km into the desert), I noticed how each little village was signposted down to the nearest tenth of a kilometre.  I thought “What a good way to assist people in visualising distances” and moreover, if such signposts were used consistently, people would subconsciously start using them. Of course, such a program would require a wide range of departments to work together.  In contrast British signposting on local roads is to the nearest quarter of a mile (almost 0.5 km) and then it is to an indeterminate point in the town or village concerned. To make matters worse, I have noticed that distances are disappearing from many signs on minor roads.

Thousands of Britons are training for the Virgin London Marathon.  A visit to the web pages of the marathon shows a poor understanding of numeracy.  Along the marathon route, every mile is highlighted with a huge arch, runners have pages of advice on linking their progress with their target times – all given in miles, yet if one goes to the results section, runners can get a report on their progress in  kilometre-based splits. These splits are used to enable records for shorter distances such as 10 km, 20 km and so on to be recorded.  Unless the runner realises this and consciously plans their run in kilometres, they are unable to make use of this feedback. Very few runners are aware that many “A-Z guides” have the OS metric-based grids, so planning in kilometres does not cause any problems – all that is lacking is a bit of “common sense”.  Talk about a lack of joined-up writing!

I could go on – the UKMA booklet “A Very British Mess”, published in 2004, ran to over 60 pages.  What then is stopping people from using working with metric units, each to their own level of competence and without any artificial barriers such as the transition between yards and miles? The real problem is the disgraceful way in which many Eurosceptics have seized on metrication as a symbol of the EU, and as a sign of defiance, ridicule it.  Parts of the press, realising that keeping the status quo in respect of units of measure is the easy way out, are reluctant to use metric units, while other parts of the press, particularly those that are hostile to the EU, do all they can to gain short term advantages at the expense of long-term benefits to the country.

One of the ways that an adult literacy campaign can work is to encourage the use of the metric system as it removes or at least mitigates some of the barriers that adults with poor numeracy skills face. In so doing however, they have huge task in convincing a metric-hostile press that this is the way forward – there is no sensationalism in boring mundane systems that work.

12 thoughts on “Numeracy Counts”

  1. The observation by the NIACE “While educators and policy makers speak readily of the skills, attitudes, behaviours of those with the weakest skills and fewest qualifications, they rarely focus on the numeracy competence of those who are other wise well qualified” is an interesting one and perhaps explains why many in the media, political and legal professions have never seen the need to buy into metrication. Simply put, they don’t appear to fully understand the advantages to everyday life and the economy that the change would bring.


  2. I never cease to be amazed at how ignorant people are when it comes to numeracy. I remember a few years ago a senior shop assistant in Hamleys in London (this some 30 years ago, so presumably she was educated to a reasonably high standard), who couldn’t add up in her head £5.00 plus £4.50 (I forget why she had to do this as the cash register would normally do this). I told her the answer was £9.50, but she had to go and find a calculator to make sure. I am constantly coming across similar instances in shops and other situations and places, and there is no doubt in my mind that numeracy skills have been allowed to deteriorate to an unacceptably low level in this country. Perhaps if we can get the next generation of school children educated in numeracy to a higher standard, they will embrace, rather than be afraid of, completing metrication in the UK.


  3. John’s observation of the use of calculators by many people in the United Kingdom only serves to highlight numeracy problems. Children are not taught how to manipulate imperial units, whether by hand or on calculators, so how will they find the average of say 6st 4lb, 7st 10lb and 5st 9lb? On the other hand, since they are not use the metric system in their everyday lives, they would never dream of trying to find the average of 40 kg, 49kg and 36kg. In practice, the answer is likely to be “Am I bovvered?”


  4. @Martin

    If you average 3 supermodels, you get about 2.5 normal-weight woman. 🙂

    I would change one of the weights. As an example problem, it allows a wrong process to give a correct answer. You can separately average the stones and the pounds, without running into the problem this method would usually cause.


  5. Here’s something I recently experienced. I was talking with a few friends, one is from America, all around the age of 23 or 24. An English friend said ‘My mum said she only weighed about 6 stone on her wedding day’. The American asked ‘How much is that in pounds?’. Puzzled looks all round, no one could give an answer. I muttered 84 under my breath.

    Isn’t it great? We have people talking exclusively in units they have zero understanding of!


  6. Here’s a test for exponents of imperial systems to see if they really understand the system they support:
    Ask them – How close is 1 ft 5 inches to 2 ft?
    Then ask – How close is 1 gallon 5 pints to 2 gallons?
    then – How close is 1 pound 5 ounces to 2 pounds?

    Clearly the answer is different in every case. Unless they can express it as a decimal number (doubtful), then it will be a fraction with a different denominator, making them impossible to visualise or compare. British people seem to think that measurement is all about conversion factors. They don’t understand that measurement is all about numbers.


  7. As trying to use any form of logic, reason or fact is just shrugged off by the anti-metric-EU brigade or whatever, I wonder if this is not just all a lost cause anyway. Just wait til America coverts and then the job is done for us. Numbers quite simply dont work for these people. Reading through the many posts here I do see a few fellow oldies that share my hatred (or fear) of trying to calculate things in measurments that were never ever visualised to have to be calculated to any real degree. We are just put in the pot along with scientists and engineers, forgetting about how many hours, and yes tears too, us ordinary people spent just trying to keep our jobs, remember, no calculators, adding machines, copiers. If you got it wrong you were sacked, get it right and next time you get something harder. You had the slide rule and log tables of course. There is quite simply no feeling whatsoever that ‘ordinary people’ should ever have to work anything out, even at the most basic level. On this basis it is quite irrelevant how simple or complicated anything is. It just dont wash. A baby weighs 8lb, the mother 9 stone, the dog 20kg a bag of sand a cwt. the TV is too heavy, why should there be a common factor? That is for nerds. The fact that anyone says metric is complicated (relative to Impurial) just shows they have probably never had to calculate anything in their lives (and yes, I would love to hear from a pro-Impurial person that has had to cross calculate different units manually and actually enjoyed it!!)
    On this basis, I think it will make little difference how numeracy is taught (I assume numeracy is something like sums). It is a mental problem, not a numeracy problem.
    As for incentives, my reward for comming top in arithmatic at the age of 8 was to be given the school registers to add up and totalise. I never came anywhere near top after that, that ended any liking for sums.


  8. As an interesting aside to the comment above about the commonality of measures here to those in the US I have an interesting observation.

    A work colleague of mine, who is 30 years old has just returned from a trip to the US (both the mainland and Hawaii). Unprompted, he said that he was surprised how they all used feet, inches and miles over there – he really struggled to get his head around that and commented that this was because Britain tended to use the metric system more.

    As I understand it, and I don’t mind being corrected on this – the US still uses gallons, quarts, bushels, fluid ounces, barrels, pecks, grains, BTUs, fathoms – things long ago obsolete over here.

    In fact, when it comes to some measures we have seen real success here in the UK. Celsius dominates in all areas of temperature measurement, litres are far more prevalent than gallons, millilitres more so than fluid ounces (never hear these mentioned), kW instead of BTU and I am sure we don’t use bushels, pecks etc.

    On one final point, media always uses barrels when talking about oil, I have never met anyone who knows what a barrel is – why don’t they quote litres or tonnes innews stories, we could all understand this.


  9. As an American, I can say your list of units is correct with the possible exception of the grain. Pharmaceuticals are metric. The grain is occasionally used as a measure of minerals in water and water hardness, but I think few Americans know what it is.

    They are not used exclusively, as dual is required on many products and some industries are metric, but all the others are in common use.

    The petroleum barrel is 42 US gallons (1 US gallon = 231 in³, it is the old Queen Anne wine gallon). With VERY minor rounding, it is 159 L. Actual 42 gal. barrels have NEVER been used to distribute petroleum, either crude or refined.


  10. It isn’t necessary to do arithmetic with measurement to see some of the advantages with the metric system. Here is an example:

    Put these imperial drill bit sizes in order:

    11/64, 3/16, 9/32, 1/4, 5/16, 3/8

    Now do the same with these metric sizes

    5.5, 3.0, 2.5, 8.5, 7.0, 9.0

    Which was easier?

    I’m sure y’all could think of other examples if you put your mind to it.


  11. Mark – you say its a success that we have phased out some imperial units in favour of metric ones, but is that really true? At least Americans are consistent and still understand imperial units. In Britain, using a mixture of the two systems means that a lot of people don’t understand either. In my opinion being stuck between the two systems is a worse position than if we hadn’t started metrication at all.


  12. @Andy
    If you think Americans understand Imperial (or Customary) you may be giving us WAY too much credit. Most of the people who are really numerate probably work with metric too, but most of those who do not work with metric simply aren’t very numerate at all.

    The man in the street would almost certainly get 12 in/ft and might get 5280 ft/mi. We don’t use yards as much as you do, so fewer would get either 1 yd = 3 ft (or 36″) or that 1760 yd = 1 mi. That doesn’t seem so bad until you realize dirt, sand, crushed stone, concrete, etc in delivered in cubic yards and many need help translating the dimensions of a space to be filled into a material order.

    In fluid volumes, we tend to use the pint less than you, and use the cup a lot in recipes. I would guess people would do fairly well with fl oz, cup, quart, gallon, not so well with the pint. But soft drinks and bottled water are often sold in round metric sizes. Ask a person where a 0.5 L bottle fits among 12 fl oz, 16 fl oz, and 20 fl oz bottles, I would not expect a great score. Most Americans might know qualitatively that the Imperial gallon is larger than the US gallon, but I think few could give a reasonably accurate quantitative estimate.

    In weights, we don’t use stones. I think most Americans would do OK with pounds and ounces. Many more would correctly guess the number of pounds in a hundredweight than in the UK, but only because the American answer is 100 (duh). A ton, I’m not so sure.


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