The link between measurement skills and numeracy

Poor numeracy is blighting Britain’s economic performance and ruining lives, says a new charity launched to champion better maths skills.

You can find recent BBC reports on this topic on the following web pages:

In order to test the numeracy skills of members of the public, the BBC interviewer put sample questions to them. All the questions involved measurement, and all except the one on cooking times used metric units. These questions focus on real-world problems and have practical applications. Here are some key quotes from the “Poor numeracy” BBC report:

  • “millions of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable, or pay a household bill.”
  • “almost half the working population of England have only primary school maths skills.”
  • “weak maths skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness.”
  • “Only 22% of people have strong enough maths skills to get a good GCSE in the subject – down from 26% when the survey was last carried out in 2003.”

Chris Humpries, chairman of National Numeracy, called poor maths skills a peculiarly British disease that does not happen in other parts of the world and said that “just 15% of Britons studied maths after the age of 16, compared with 50-100% in most developed nations.” A KPMG report showed that poor numeracy skills costs the government £2.4 bn. The BBC report pointed to the damaging effects poor maths skills had on our science, technology and engineering industries, and on the ability to earn a living and to do jobs well.

Despite the fact that all the sample test questions from the Skills for Life survey published by the BBC involved measurement, it is extraordinary that no one mentioned the elephant in the room, namely the measurement mess that we face on a daily basis and how it undermines adults’ numeracy skills. We can guess why no one dared to mention it. Metrication has been a taboo subject for politicians for years because they are afraid to challenge the eurosceptics, the tabloid media, intransigent market traders, opponents within their own parties, the Department for Transport and public opinion.

Most of our competitors in the developed world do not face this problem. We have to deal with it on a daily basis, yet the Government refuses to admit it exists. Alan Young, a maths teacher with several decades of teaching experience, ran the ‘Dr Metric’ website before it was taken down and outlined on the site the problems that British school children face on a daily basis with our dual measurement system. Here is a quote:

“Measurement is not just one element of the Primary Mathematics syllabus, it is the origin of virtually all the concepts at this level. Consequently, it is very important to have just one system of units in place.

Because of our continued use of imperial units, British children:

  • do not understand that we live in a world that is almost exclusively designed and built using metric units
  • do not see the relevance of what they learn about the metric system at school
  • are confused when reporters and weather forecasters mix and match imperial and metric units in the same report (often in the same sentence)
  • have to use measuring instruments outside the classroom that have dual scales and are very confusing to read – the use of digital weighing scales does not normally solve this problem
  • have to convert between metric and imperial units in both directions
  • have their science teaching undermined when weather forecasters and media reports suddenly change to degrees Fahrenheit when the temperature becomes very warm
  • are not able to compare their body measurements with those of their parents as parents are mostly still using imperial units – a set of units, incidentally, that they themselves do not properly understand
  • lose everyday opportunities to undertake simple mathematical calculations at home based on measurement
  • often move to secondary school without a good foundation in basic measuring skills and number work
  • often see mathematics as boring and irrelevant and give up with the subject

It is not hard to see why children in most other economically comparable countries do considerably better in mathematics than our children. The banishment of imperial units from all aspects of our life would remove just about all of the problems given above that only our children have to face on a day by day basis.”

One of the questions in the BBC test included the combined weight loss of four friends. On this question, parents did worse than their children. Metric Views believes that the public’s measurement skills with ‘British’ weights and measures are no better than they are with metric, despite claims to the contrary by the traditionalists. So let us reformulate some of the questions in the BBC test, substituting imperial units.

Q1. Four friends have joined a gym to lose weight and get fit. After one month they recorded their weight loss on a chart. How much weight have they lost between them?

Weight loss after one month: Jo – 1 lb 2 oz, Hasran – 2 lb 3 oz, Kevin – 2 lb 10 oz, Cathy – 1 lb 10 oz.

Q2. How many pieces of wood with a length of two and a quarter inches can you cut from a six foot plank of wood?

Q3. Fred weighs 17 stone 4 lb and needs to go down in weight to 13 stone 8 lb? How much weight does he need to lose?

You can find the answers to all three test questions below.

We wonder how would members of the public have performed had the questions in the BBC test been in imperial rather than metric.

The Department for Education commented on the numeracy issue as follows: “We want the vast majority of young people to study maths up to 18 within a decade to meet the growing demand for employees with high-level and intermediate maths skills.” Unfortunately, it would seem that politicians prefer to see the UK languish at the bottom of the international numeracy league tables rather than to admit the link between numeracy and measurement or to challenge the current myths, misinformation and misconceptions about the stalled metric transition. The consequences of this lack of leadership are now becoming evident.

Answers to Test Questions
Q1. 7 lb 9 oz
Q2. 32
Q3. 3 stone 10 lb

16 thoughts on “The link between measurement skills and numeracy”

  1. I wonder about the BBC’s numeracy (or metric awareness) in even posting a problem like the weight loss one
    [quoted from the article]
    Weight loss after one month

    Jo – 500g
    Hasran – 1kg
    Kevin – 1kg 200g
    Cathy – 750g

    A) 2kg
    B) 2kg 450g
    C) 3kg
    D) 3kg 450g

    Mixed base like 3 kg 450 g is not considered proper usage, use either 3.45 kg or possibly 3450 g. Problems of this type are common in the American education system too, but they should be using proper metric. Do they need to teach Imperial to teach mixed base problems or does it suffice to use time and angle?


  2. Good article. I would consider myself highly numerate, and as you probably know already, I only know metric. I in fact did do Maths after I was 16, up to 18. Although truth be told, I found GCSE Maths far too easy, and while A-level Maths was much more challenging, it was also too easy in my opinion. Education needs to be made much more challenging too in my opinion, as well as completing the conversion to metric elsewhere in society – especially road signs.

    That only 15% in the UK do Maths beyond 16 is not a good thing. And that only 22% could get a good GCSE, less people than before, that is highly embarassing, we could be an international laughing stock if the powers that be keep ignoring the issue, but more seriously who is going to hire people who can’t measure things or do Maths, and how do those who can’t measure, count, or calculate actually manage in life?

    How is the UK ever going to rebalance its economy, as this government has talked about doing, if so many people can’t do (and/or are deterred from doing) Maths, Science, Engineering or Technology (the areas the UK needs much more skilled people in, to rebalance in the first place) due to poor numeracy and therefore an inability to measure in metric?

    @John – I don’t ever remember seeing mixed bases (e.g. 3 kg 45 g, which looks strange to me) in Maths lessons in either sixth form college, secondary school or primary school, i would always have been 3.45 kg or 3450 g. So I find it strange that the questions were written in mixed base instead of the correct notation on the BBC website (and other news websites too – I saw the same thing on Yahoo News).


  3. The mixed use of kg and g in a single measurement is a hang over from the imperial units mindset. I entirely agree with the sentiment expressed above. When I looked at it initially I started by adding it up in grams only but then abandoned it in favour of decimal kg.

    I was highly amused by what one member of the public said in the video clip (“could you do this calculation” article):

    “If it were in pounds and ounces I could probably tell you”


    PS It would have been a good idea to tell or remind the lady that there are 1000 g in a kg and then ask her to reconsider


  4. This is a growing problem, people who are used to seeing fragmented measures in imperial will start to get confused when the same thing happens with something that you expect to be a simple base 10 system… it’s very easy to look at it and wonder how many g there are in a kg and how it all fits together.

    I’ve seen some iPhone apps that do the same thing when you’re selecting height and weight, one in particular is the NHS BMI tracker, the data entry screen is often designed to switch from feet/inches to m/cm and stone/pound to kg/100g but the result is shown correctly once selected.

    And I’m sure that many have been in situations like me where somebody has measured something, perhaps with a tape measure and have perhaps quoted it as something like “6 feet and 4 cm” and have wondered why you look puzzled!

    Unfortunately education is just the tip of the iceberg, even those of us who managed to miss imperial during our education are bombarded with it in the real world and it’s only really with use that you become familiar with something you’ve learned. You may learn a foreign language at school but unless you’re a regular visitor to a country to be able to use it you’ll only remember bits and pieces, stringing together coherent sentences will take thought and effort. Maths and measurement are no different so until metric is predominant on our roads and in the media proper education will only help so much.


  5. Is there any way for UKMA and allies to make some publicity from these results about the metric muddle and its consequences? Or even work with some influential folks behind the scenes to try to convince some key government figures to abandon the false association of metric with the EU and complete metrication under the (valid) guise of improving education and British competitiveness?


  6. Despite the all metric Olympics coming to London this year, Charity Sport Relief is promoting fun runs called the Sport Relief mile, the Sport Relief 3 mile and Sport Relief 6 mile. The message that this sends out to young people is: forget about all that international nonsense….parochial measurements are here to stay.


  7. Hi everyone,
    I looked at the links that led to the articles. I did not catch the mixing of bases, however know enough to put into same unit base and solve with proportion multiplication. Was the BBC, by not including questions with Imperial units as well as metric units, trying to show that the solution to the “numeracy problem” cannot be solved with Metrication and also show how easy it is to cause confusion? Looks to me that the people were set up for failure.


  8. The Sports Relief event is a tremendous charity event and not one that I’d care to embroil in any point scoring for either the UKMA or BWMA cause. Its no surprise in a country that clings to the mile as its official road distance that a major charity would tap into that familiarity of an antiquated measurement. Indeed even in metric Italy (home of the mile), they still have the ‘Mille Miglia’ car event.

    However, on the flip side, there are also a massive number of people who walk or run in any of the numerous Cancer Research 5K or 10K events. All children will be very familiar with the 100m, 400m, 800m and 1500m, as these are the track events that they run in at school (and as a 45 year old I can assure you these are the distances we ran in North Eastern Schools in the early 80s). So whether or not anyone knows what a mile actually is anymore is a moot point. They’d probably have a much better idea if you said approx 1600m, rather than 1760 yards. Indeed, the Sport Relief website helpfully converts the 6 miles into 10 km to give people more of an idea!


  9. @ John Steele.
    A consequence of the UK’s prolonged metric transition may be that many now see metric as imperial with different units. So, no symbols, just an abundance of abbreviations such as ms, mts, mtrs or M for metres, and 1lb 2oz leading to 1kg 200g (or gm or gms or grms).


  10. @Wilfred

    I accept that for “the man on the street.”

    I would hold the media to a higher standard of
    *Grammar and spelling
    *Fact-checking & objectivity
    Although I may hold them to that higher standard, it appears I would be highly disappointed by the performance against it (for both British and American media).


  11. Wilfred’s comment shows yet another unhappy consequence of the prolonged metric muddle. The evidence keeps mounting …


  12. Here’s an article in a US newspaper lamenting the lack of skills in math and metric that some of our own employers are facing:

    Sound familiar? The metric muddle certainly isn’t helping (as we all know).

    One would thing UK business interests would be prodding the government to do the smart thing in their own self-interest. Most puzzling …


  13. Hi Ezra and all,
    I looked over the link on Central Florida. I have little sympathy for these companies. Across the States, for years, there have been many packs of companies that have fought Metrication and convinced the government to keep status quo with US standard!


  14. PISA results, published today, show no improvement in rankings for maths, despite additional spending on education:
    Even Vietnam has overtaken the UK.
    Needless to say, every country above us in the rankings made a better job of the metric changeover than we are doing – 48 years into the job and still not finished.
    One consolation – we are still slightly ahead of the USA.


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