One of our regular readers, John Frewen-Lord, a quantity surveyor, has attempted to answer this question. In this article J F-L refers to the junior Education Minister’s suggestion that there would be more teaching of imperial units in the future school curriculum (subsequently played down by Department officials as “no significant change”).
UKMA regards the Minister’s suggestion as a political stunt to appease Eurosceptic critics (not that it has anything to do with “Europe”). It has still to be formally consulted upon and is unlikely to get any further. Nevertheless, John’s analysis is a useful demonstration of the order of possible costs of the DfT’s obstinate refusal to join the rest of the world and permit metric units on the UK’s road signs. This is what he wrote:
“For very many years now, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) has used the excuse of cost in its obstinate resistance to converting the UK’s traffic signs from imperial to metric values. It has become quite obvious that this is simply a smokescreen for some other (and rationally unjustifiable) reason for refusing to bring the country’s road signs in line with virtually everywhere else in the world.
Just recently, it has been proposed to start teaching Britain’s schoolchildren imperial measures in school, purely, it must be emphasised, because of the use of imperial units on road signs – there is absolutely no other reason whatsoever for re-introducing imperial units in the school curriculum after some 40 years of metric-only teaching, and no other use of imperial units in government, industry, commerce or the professions.
This is very much the tail wagging the dog (any sane person would suggest changing the road signs!). Has the DfT backed itself into a corner on this issue? Can it still now use the argument of cost in refusing to change? Perhaps the following may shed some light on the total cost implications of this somewhat bizarre and very backward step.
The DfT, as reported on in MV on many occasions, has come up with a grossly inflated cost of £700 million to convert all of the UK’s speed limit and distance signs to metric units. Others have said that the true cost, especially considering the economies of scale involved, are more like a tenth of that. My own assessment is that the real cost may be as much as double that tenth, but is unlikely to exceed £150 million. Let us use that figure as an upper-bound and conservative estimated one-time cost.
That cost must then be compared with the recurring annual costs of NOT converting the UK’s road signs. In order to do that, the one-time cost must be annualised over a number of years. Road signs probably last somewhere in the order of 20 years before they either wear out, or are replaced for other reasons. The average mid-life will therefore be 10 years. The £150 million thus represents an annualised cost of £15 million per year. (I have ignored the time value of money.)
Now let us look at what ‘saving’ this annual amount of £15 million is actually going to cost, or is currently costing, the UK:
Re-introducing imperial units into the school curriculum
Back in 1992, Richards Phelps undertook a study in the US for Education Week, showing how much teaching dual measurements costs US schools. In particular, Phelps noted that: “… there is a cost to the time spent in teaching two systems. A full year of mathematics instruction is lost to the duplication of effort. Mostly in the elementary grades, our schools spend a few weeks a year [my emphasis] teaching two measurement systems when teaching just metric could be done in one-third the time. Elementary school mathematics textbooks generally give equal weight to the two systems, as do the newly completed curriculum standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.”
In the UK, it is doubtful that equal weight would be given to teaching imperial units alongside the metric system (although it could happen!), and therefore the full year lost in the US (over the 12 years typical for US students) would be much less here. Nonetheless, additional time must be allowed (or is the UK going to abandon other subjects to incorporate teaching imperial units?). This additional time is, say, one third of that spent in the US, or four months over those 12 years. With a typical school year of, say, 200 days, that represents an extra 5 ½ days a year additional classroom time [that is, 200 days per year multiplied by 4 months divided by 12 years, 200 x 4 /144 = 5.6 days – Editor] (I’m sure British schoolchildren will really relish that!). What will this additional time cost per year?
It would be unfair to simply pro-rata the total costs of these 5 ½ days into the annual education budget, as many fixed costs (such as tangible assets) won’t change. But incremental costs will. I will assume that these incremental costs amount to 50% of the annual budget. In 2008-9, the UK education budget was £62.2 billion (source Wikipedia). Allowing for some inflation, let us assume in 2013 it is currently £65 billion. Over a 200-day school year, that represents £325 million PER DAY! Those 5 ½ days, at an incremental cost factor of 50%, are going to cost the UK a staggering £894 million a year!
That alone exceeds the entire one-time cost of converting Britain’s road signs, even at the DfT’s own inflated estimate! But it doesn’t stop there – there are other costs as well.
I have reported before on a lost export order suffered by an engineer colleague when his Japanese client, undertaking a due diligence visit, assumed that, as all he could see were imperial road signs, the UK was not metric (or metric enough), and, rather than risk a metric-imperial mix-up, awarded the contract to a competitor in a properly metric country. Other British companies may never even get the opportunity to bid on export projects, as overseas companies look upon Britain’s workers as being potentially proficient in neither metric nor imperial units (but particularly metric), and look elsewhere.
In 2011, the UK exported £480 billion of goods and services. Let us round that up to £500 billion for 2013. The US (the world’s only main non-metric country) represents 11% of that, leaving £445 billion exported to the metric world. But how much more than £445 billion would that be if that metric world had TOTAL confidence in the metric capabilities of Britain’s companies and their workforce? Even at a miniscule 0.1% of lost opportunity, the UK may be (and likely is) losing almost £445 million a year in lost exports. It could in reality be much more than that.
Again, we see a cost to the UK economy EVERY YEAR that is of the same order of magnitude as the one-time costs of converting the UK’s road signs (and many times those costs on an annualised basis, using some sensible cost estimates).
The above are just two significant aspects of the UK’s economy that are being, or will be, negatively affected PURELY by the DfT’s insistence on retaining imperial measurements on our road signs. There are numerous other costs well, such as companies having to deal with dual measurements, a workforce with less than optimum mathematical skills, the real costs to society as a whole of foreign lorries striking bridges, and so on, all of which probably amount to many more hundreds of millions of pounds a year.
How can Britain’s politicians be blind to what’s happening here? To cost the British economy at least £1.5 billion a year to save a mere £15 million over that same year – £100 of costs for each £1 saved – is plain madness!”