Metric majority attained

Preliminary results of the 2011 census for England and Wales indicate that those of the population who were taught metric at school now comfortably outnumber those who were taught Imperial.

On 16 July 2012, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) issued preliminary results from the 2011 census for England and Wales. It says that the median age of the population – where half the population is younger and half is older – was 39, with the median age for men being 38 and for women 40:

We need to relate this to the changeover of teaching in schools to metric.

The impact of metrication on the syllabuses for primary and secondary schools was receiving consideration as early as 1968, and by Autumn 1974, the teaching in all primary schools in England and Wales had switched to metric. Everyone born in September 1969 or later should have been taught in metric throughout their school career. Higher education was quicker off the mark, with examinations for engineering subjects requiring solutions in SI units from 1971 onwards.

Using the chart of population by age and sex that accompanies the BBC report (and is included in the summary ONS report), and excluding children up to the age of eight who may have not yet been taught any measurement system, the sums look like this (totals in millions):

For the population taught metric

Total population in England and Wales        56.10
Hence population below the median age      28.05
Less children up to the age of 8                     -5.53
Plus metric taught aged 39-42 inclusive        3.22
Total                                                                 25.74

For population taught Imperial

Population above median age                        28.05
Less metric taught aged 39-42 inclusive      -3.22
Total                                                                 24.83

The ONS data also shows that the number by which those taught metric in primary school exceeds the number taught Imperial, currently about 900 000, will increase each year by about 1.6 million. By the time the next census results are published in 2022, those born after September 1969 are likely to outnumber those born before by a ratio of 2 : 1.

Successive UK Governments have for many years sought excuses for postponing the metric changeover of road signs. In 2002, the Transport Minister put forward the argument that such a change would be confusing for drivers who had not received a metric education at school. This argument was not heard in Commonwealth countries making the transition to metric measures in the 1970s, and has fallen out of favour here. Conversely, because more than half of the population of England and Wales has not been taught the mysteries of the Imperial system, perhaps the Government will take steps to impose a cut-off date on its continuing use, not just on road signs but throughout the economy.

Metric Views advises that you don’t hold your breath.

25 thoughts on “Metric majority attained”

  1. Unfortunately I can’t see it changing anytime soon. The sad thing is my 11 year old nephew is just as familar with kilometres as he is with miles, it can be so easily done.


  2. My mum distinctly remembers her curriculum changing from imperial to metric units the year before she sat her O-levels; that was in 1961!


  3. @TonyW
    Thank you Tony, I was wondering if I had missed a few years when I say my education (in Essex) was 100% metric by 1961, that is a more realistic figure. This 1974 figure, which is even after decimalisation of currency, is probably the final rubber stamp to say it was all completed, 13 years late for rubber stamping would seem about right.
    1958 was the year we adopted the MKS system I believe, it would have taken a year or two for books to be updated and filter into the system. Metric only rulers, tapes and other instruments were common place then (I still have them), we were ready to roll. Then I guess we joined EU and Europhobia came in and the anti-metric brigade was born.


  4. I think confusion is arising between the teaching of science in secondary schools, which has been metric since before the First World War, and the teaching of maths in primary schools.

    Dr Tagg, an experienced maths teacher, wrote in 1968:
    “The main effect of the system of measures we use on teaching has been in the infants’ and junior schools… a large proportion of the time allocated to ‘sums’ was – and still is – used up in … practicing the elementary operations of arithmetic with measurements in mixed units.”

    I can certainly remember in my primary school in the early 1950s converting pounds to tons, cwt, quarters, stones and pounds, and also the surprise of discovering the existence of a different measurement system after transferring to secondary school.


  5. Sorry – I can’t agree with “derekp” above. Certainly my secondary school was teaching in both imperial and metric up to and including the intake-year of 1969. I joined in 1970 and was in the first year who were taught S.I. metric only. This caused us some problems close to ‘O’ levels where the Physics teacher (for instance) could give us past papers to work on for exams practice, but where we could only solve about 50% of the problems on offer due to them being in FPS or even (occasionally) CGS metric.

    Certainly not metric-only since WWI, derekp!

    And as for geography, we actually had to be taught roughly how to use inch-to-the-mile maps because our area in the boondocks was in the final tranche of reprinting of maps, and until 1974 or so we didn’t have any 50000:1 maps for the locality. It didn’t matter for ‘O’ level because exam questions requiring mapreading were supplied with 50000:1 or 25000:1 maps from some other part of the UK where they *were* available.

    I can still remember that there are 63360 inches to the mile! What a fat lot of good *that* gem of learning has been to my adult life! Maybe one day I’ll be able to win a pub quiz with it – I can’t think of any other use.


  6. I don’t want to be a cynic, but it’s unavoidable here. Regardless of the median age of the population, don’t expect any movement on the roadsigns issue under any flavour of government where the Tories have the majority. They won’t do it. It’s an anathema to them and their backers.

    Even if the job of Minister for Transport was somehow to be given to a Lib. Dem (which it wouldn’t) don’t expect any major change. The minister would be watched like a hawk for any such tendency and fired within seconds if the possibility raised its head.

    BTW: the median age of the public is a meaningless demographic in this context. You want to know the median age of British drivers, adjusted by a factor to cater for the foreign drivers on our roads of all ages – none of whom would understand imperial measures regardless of age.

    It might be possible prise such stats out of the DfT – probably requiring an F.O.I request. Certainly you can’t deduce them from the 2011 census data.


  7. OK, I have just sent another email to my MP, a total waste of time I know. I have trashed most of the arguments usually used, and quoted these two latest ones. Lets see if they can come up with something origional this time.


  8. I started school in 1972 and it was metric all the way from Infants to Sixth Form. Never encountered Imperial until I started work in 1983. And at home – I remember my mother going mad when Blue Peter started giving all of their recipes in metric. However, she has since recovered, and now surprises my 52 year old brother by using metric. Interestingly, he has very little concept of metric in the home, but used it all the time when he worked as a graphic artist.
    I was pleasantly surprised at work the other day when a young colleague understood my reference to my height at 191 cm, and weight at 97 kg.
    As for the actual subject to hand – I think the best chance we have to convert to metric is if the Government goes ahead with its proposal to lower speed limits on country roads…. all those roads signs they’d have to change!


  9. I do feel that kilograms are slowly being accepted in terms of your personal weight. I know a few people as well as myself who weigh themselves in kg and most know their weight in both. I never get a funny feeling when quoting my weight in metric, but I do when I say I am 170 cm. Feet and inches are a totally different story I’m afraid.


  10. I entered what is now called secondary school in 1961. I have no clear recollection when I was first introduced to the metric system but it was taught alongside imperial in both maths and science.
    Outside those lessons imperial was the norm. I am not surprised that so many people in the UK think metric is for scientists. Our education system set the pattern long ago.
    The failure to adopt it fully across society re-inforces that myth and continues to fool young people into thinking it is purely school stuff and not for real life.


  11. One further anecdote. I seem to recall (vaguely) fellow pupils questioning the weirdness of imperial units and wondering why on Earth we used them. I distinctly remember a history teacher telling us that they were invented to confuse foreigners.
    When you consider the muddle we are now in, foreigners have the last laugh.


  12. As I may have mentioned before, I work in retailing. This week, due to staff holidays I have worked on the fresh food counters at an Oxford supermarket. I have served 30-40 people a day with ages varying from 15 to 80 I would say with a variety of meat, fish, deli and cheese products which are all sold by weight.

    Now, I have always maintained that the majority of customers are comfortable using metric, and that very few customers refer to old school Imperial. But this weeks experience has really brought home to me how metric my customers are! Only one customer specifically asked for ‘a good pound’ of something, I pointed out that I can only weigh in kilogrammes and would do my best to convert for him. He then got extremely irritated when I replied ‘will half a kilogram be ok?’. But the rest of the customers have shown how happy they are asking for their cheese, ham, olives or whatever, by the gram. And that included the oft-referred to ‘OAP’, who according to the BWMA cannot possibly be expected to be able to grasp metric.


  13. A bit late in responding to this article, I know. But in looking back at my education, while I vaguely recall the odd bits of metric in my secondary education in the 1950s, I never really encountered any metric usage (other than a bit in South Africa until I left there in 1971 to return to Canada) until Canada went metric in the late 1970s. I found it all very strange initially.

    In the late 1970s and early 198os, I was teaching a Ryerson Polytechnic (now Ryerson University) evening course in construction management. I had to teach my students in the conversion of drawings and measurements to SI.

    That was one of the key drivers in convincing me that metric was the way to go – that and the fact that I had already spent some time on a Federal government construction sector conversion committee, creating standards, timetables and so forth.

    My children, born in 1973 and 1976, were educated solely in metric units in Ontario’s primary and secondary school system. My son’s Universtity of Western Ontario engineering eduaction was likewise. Currently he works as a design and implementaion engineer in the automotive sector – which of course is 100% metric.

    He now is also teaching night school – and is dismayed that the new students are less familiar with metric usage that he is. He puts that down to Canada’s capitulation to US demands that imperial (or USC) be taught (and certainly used) alongside SI.

    Canada, especially considering the influx of immigrants from metric countries in the last 30 years or so, probably achieved a metric majority many years ago, but has progressed little since. It’s not that Canadians don’t like metric – the majority do (particularly the younger generations), but the ever overbearing influence of the US makes it hard to make metric ‘stick’.


  14. BBC News has an interesting article about the growing shortage of Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) students:

    While a full-on conversion in the UK to SI will not solve the problem all by itself, of course, that certainly ought to be a component of any efforts by the government to promote Stem graduates (as well as foster the perception in the international business community that the UK is a fully metric country).

    Maintaining the current muddle certainly won’t help matters.


  15. A home-shopping catalogue, “Presents for men”, arrived today in the post with Radio Times. When I last looked at an edition of this catalogue, in summer 2008, it used a mixture of metric and imperial units with no clear preference for one or the other. The catalogue that arrived today uses metric units throughout. Could it be that this company has noticed that the metric majority now includes a large part of its target market?


  16. @derekp
    There is a second page Derek, my last post there was on 17 December 2012. It could do with a bit of a wake up though.
    Unfortunately which? do not seem to take much notice of there own survey, any comments about articles being non-metric at best get ignored. One of my comments got quite a curt official reply from which?


  17. The Imperial strikes back? Hmmm – not very convincingly. Mind you, not a very large number of votes to start with, certainly insufficient to be statistically valid. However, for what it’s worth, this is the tally so far:

    Should imperial measurements be taught in schools?
    No, it’s time to go fully metric (56%, 23 Votes)
    Only if they are taught in history lessons (22%, 9 Votes)
    Yes, they are helpful for daily life (22%, 8 Votes)
    Total Voters: 41


  18. If we apply the 2 standard deviation test, using the binomial theorm, we can say that at the 95% confidence limit:
    Between 17 and 29 people think that it is time to go fully metric
    Between 4 and 14 people think that the imperial units should only be taught in history
    Between 3 and 13 people think that they are helpful for daily life.


  19. There is a petition just closing (today, 30 Jan 2013) in the USA: – we petition the Obama administration to:
    Make the Metric system the standard in the United States, instead of the Imperial system.

    It has received over 37,000 votes of 25,000 needed (for whatever!), somewhat better than the 7 or 8 votes I saw for the UK petition.
    Maybe this would be interesting to follow if some of our American friends could help.


  20. I noticed an e-petition on ours, to metricate our road signs, it got about 90 votes!!. We metric supporters don’t help ourselves sometimes.


  21. Matt, there is a clear reason why a UK (actually, international-probably, but essentially for the UK) petition got just 90 votes. Just think about it for a while and you’ll see. Note that ’90 votes’ doesn’t seem to reflect the large number of people who seem to be passionately pro-metric and post their thoughts on various occasions where the subject is raised. Unfortunately there is a high quota of ‘pro-metric’ individuals choose to attack imperial, and sometimes the person – as opposed to promoting metric. What message does that send out?


  22. Steve, you are correct when you say people should not just attack imperial and attack people personally, but to be fair some imperial supporters can be just as bad, especially when it comes to attacking metric, so it works both way’s. I do agree that any debate should be discussed in a decent manner and with respect to the other person, no matter what the personal viewpoint is and topic at hand.


  23. Teaching of imperial measures in primary schools ceased in 1974/5. ONS has now published* data showing that the median age of the UK population in mid 2015 was 40. So that means that well over half the population has been taught only metric measures and decimal arithmetic at school. Science was, of course, taught in metric throughout the 20th century, so everyone living in Britain today should have encountered some metric measures at school.
    (* search for ‘median age’ on the ONS web site.)


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