Survey exposes the failure of measurement policy in the UK

The UK Metric Association has issued the following press release:

… news release … news release … news release … news release … news release…

Embargoed until 01:00 on Friday, 24 January 2014

Government policy on metrication has failed – says metric group

London,  24 January 2014

The UK’s dysfunctional muddle of two incompatible measurement systems will continue indefinitely unless the Government takes decisive action.  This is the conclusion of a report from the UK Metric Association (UKMA) based on  a new opinion survey carried out by YouGov.

A follow-up survey also shows that if a future government were to end the official use of the  remaining imperial units (such as miles on road signs) it would have no impact on the result of a General Election.

UKMA spokesperson, Robin Paice, said: “We have known for many years that the UK is stuck in a muddle of metric and imperial measurements.  What our report shows is that more than half the population do not understand some of the basic weights and measures.  But it also shows that most people are happy to use metric units if they are the normal units in general use – e.g. using metres to measure a room for floor coverings.  The solution to the muddle is obvious: it is in the national interest to finish the job of converting to metric units for all purposes. The trouble is that politicians are scared of doing the right thing in case it loses them votes.  However, the follow-up survey demonstrates that completing the conversion to metric units would make absolutely no difference to the result of a general election.”

What the surveys do show is that successive governments’ attempts to convert the UK to general use of metric units have failed.  This is because government policy has been based on the false assumption that because children are taught metric units in maths and science lessons at school, they will grow up using metric units in everyday life – and therefore governments need only wait for the change to occur naturally.  However, experience has shown that this assumption is wrong, and the change is not happening.

Thus the “very British mess” will continue indefinitely unless the Government intervenes.  The covering report argues that this “mess” is not just a harmless national quirk but actually does real damage in terms of consumer protection, health and safety, communication, wasted education, understanding of science, accidents, conversion errors and foreign perception of the UK as insular and out of date.  Finally, the report lists the essential steps needed to resolve the “mess”.

The full covering report of the surveys can be read at, and its Executive Summary, which is appended to this notice, is available at

Notes for editors:

  • The UK Metric Association (UKMA) is an independent, non-party political, single issue organisation which provides accurate information on the international metric system (“Système International”) and supports its adoption for all official, trade, legal, contractual and other purposes in the United Kingdom as soon as practicable.  UKMA is financed entirely by membership subscriptions and personal donations.
  • All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample sizes  were 1978 adults and 1878 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 2nd – 3rd September and 7th – 8th November 2013 respectively.  The surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
  • Further extensive background information can be found generally on UKMA’s website at .
  • Robin Paice (spokesperson for UKMA in respect of this survey) is available for interviews in Portsmouth or by telephone on 023 9275 5268. Alternatively, the UKMA Chairman John Frewen-Lord may also be contacted on 07803 594985, or in person in Grimsby.


Still a mess

The continuing failure of UK measurement policy

Government policy on metrication has failed.  This is because it is based on the false assumption that, as children receive some metric education in maths lessons at school, they will grow up using metric units.  Therefore (so it is assumed) as the population ages, acceptance and adoption of metric units will grow until eventually the metric system will be the default system for all purposes.

Unfortunately, experience has not borne out this assumption.

Based on this false assumption, and having achieved partial metrication in most fields of activity, successive governments have given up on trying to complete the conversion of the UK to primary use of metric units.  No further action is planned.

The UK Metric Association (UKMA) therefore commissioned YouGov to carry out a survey of public understanding and use of metric and imperial units and of public support for completing the metric changeover.  A follow-up survey also examined the salience of metrication as a political issue. Key results were as follows:

  • Half of respondents were opposed to completing metrication, with a quarter supportive and a fifth indifferent or noncommittal.
  • Although younger generations were more supportive than the older, still 36% of the 18-24 age group were opposed.
  • Where there are specific practical reasons for using metric units, the majority of the population prefer to use them
  • However, where parental, peer and media pressures are strongly in favour of imperial units, all age groups continue to use imperial – including for personal weighing
  • Although there was a definite association between age and acceptance/use of metric units, there was still either a majority or a large minority of younger people who habitually use imperial rather than metric units for various everyday functions
  • Thus the basic assumption that underlies Government policy – that metric education in school will lead naturally to a general acceptance of metric units for all purposes – is shown to be incorrect.

It is concluded that, without Government action to complete metrication, the present dysfunctional muddle of two incompatible measurement systems – the “very British mess” – will continue indefinitely.

So why does this “mess” matter?

The “mess” matters for several reasons:

To function effectively, an adult in Britain needs to have a detailed knowledge of two measurement systems.  Yet the YouGov survey showed that:

  • 76% of respondents were unable to answer correctly how many yards there are in a mile
  • 43% could not say how many metres there are in a kilometre
  • 32% of respondents were unable to answer correctly how many pounds there are in a stone
  • 39% did not give the correct answer when asked how many grams there are in a kilogram
  • These findings suggest that many adults in Britain are unable to understand or make use of the key information that is provided for their protection or benefit.

Incompatible units make comparison difficult – undermining consumer protection

Mutual incomprehension – people who use different systems don’t understand each other

Constant need to convert – prone to errors

Accidents – such as the airliner that ran out of fuel as a result of wrong conversion

Costs – of mistakes, and of running two systems

Failure to reap the benefits of past investment in metrication – esp in education

Foreign perception of the UK as insular and living in the imperial past

Politicians of all parties need to recognise that:

  • the policies of successive governments over the past 40 years have failed, and
  • Government action is needed to resolve the problem

Specific action includes:

  • Declaration that completing metrication remains the Government’s objective
  • Duty on public sector bodies to use metric units
  • Requirement to use metric units in advertising and product description
  • Conversion of road signs and speed limits
  • Better enforcement of existing rules

Contrary to the common assumption that metrication is a vote loser, the survey evidence shows that such a programme of action would be very unlikely to cost a party votes in the context of a general election or to make any difference to the result. 

16 thoughts on “Survey exposes the failure of measurement policy in the UK”

  1. 76% of people don’t know how many yards are in a mile. This doesn’t really surprise me. I’m in my fifties and, like most of the population, was never taught imperial conversion factors.

    Asides from providing some shocking items of trivia that illustrate the “proud to be no good at maths” culture in this country, this report has some serious implications that the Department for Transport need to answer. For instance:

    Why are distances on road signs shown in 2 different units (miles and yards) when the majority of drivers are unable to convert between the two?
    Vehicle odometers use only one unit – decimal miles. None use yards.

    If the junction I am looking for is signed as being 1/3 mile ahead and a temporary sign warns of road works 500 yards ahead, how am I expected to know if the road works are before or after my junction if I’m unable to convert between the 2 units?

    The implication of this report is that millions of pounds are being wasted every year on road signs that are known to be unfit for purpose.


  2. It does not surprise me either that 76% of people don’t know how many yards are in a mile, nor 32% do not know how many pounds in those so-beloved (by some) stones. However, the fact that 43% do not know how many metres there are in a kilometre, and 39% do not know how many grams in a kilogram is frightening given over 40 years of so-called metric education. I think there must be a case for calling the education ‘system’ to account also. Just how much metric do the teachers know? It seems they don’t even know what ‘kilo’ means. I am baffled though as to how so many can do their shopping for 40 years with many not knowing what a kilo means.

    I do not even accept that it is us older folk either. As children most had no TV, computers and calculators were not even heard of. What most of us had was a wireless (radio) and a radiogram was a centre of attraction. These had big, pretty and well lit dials full of k/cs (now k/Hz), M/cs and metres along with such strange words as Luxembourg, Hillversum, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, London and Moscow. The households were very family orientated. Thus was it that from a very early age, twiddling with the tuning knob and getting strange noises that prompted many questions and learning about kilocycles, megacycles and metres along with distant lands that we could never even think about seeing. Few, if any of us lived without tuning in the radio, particularly during the war and immediate post war years, so we have been exposed to these for all of our life, no excuses really.


  3. My first-ever visit to England in October 2013 exposed the polarity of orientation between the U.K and Continental Europe over the use of the metric system. As a visiting American, I was cautioned by the English, “WE ARE **NOT** EUROPEAN!” and this rejection of the things of the mainland seem to include metric units. Perhaps this implosion of identity is part of the reason that British metric education has been ineffective.

    But, I choose to stand firm on my observation that the SI is the global measurement system, that although it has its roots in Europe, it has been adopted clear across the planet. It is European, but it also African, Asian, Australian, American, and Antarctican. It should stand far above politics, as the world’s measurement language, yet another way we can join in turning our swords into plowshares, and bringing our minds together to solve earth’s problems.


  4. Paul,

    You were a victim of double-standards on the part of the British political establishment. Virtually everything in the UK uses metric units, except where the general public (and therefore tourists) are involved. Had you stopped to inspect the use of labelling in our grocery stores, you would have seen that almost every packet is in metric units only and displays an “e” signs. The “e” signs indicate that the estimated contents are in accordance with EU directive 76/211/EEC. This indicates the allowable deviation permitted from the stated quantity. In the case of a 1 kg packet of sugar, this is ± 1.5%. (See Prior to the UK joining the EEC, the stated weight was a guaranteed weight – typically a 1 lb tin of baked beans would be labelled 15¾ oz.

    Many other products, including almost every electrical appliance, display a “CE” symbol. This is another EU regulation denoting conformity to certain EU standards (see Of course very few people notice these signs and even fewer get excited about them.

    I could go on – VAT, unlimited “duty-free” booze bought in France etc. In fact, apart from language, I believe that there is more harmony in legislation between various EU member states than there is between the various states in the US – it is just that the UK consider themselves somewhat more independent of the rest of the EU than do citizens of other EU states – a little like the stereotype Texan might do (with no offence meant to you personally).


  5. I see parallels between the UK’s measurement muddle and the Arab world’s language muddle.

    In the Arab world, most written communication (along with a few spoken things such as news bulletins) are in the standard Arabic language known as “fus-ha”, but ordinary Arabs learn from their parents a multitude of often mutually-incomprehensible dialects (which have roughly the same relation to fus-ha as the Romance languages do to Latin). I suspect this linguistic muddle is one of the main reasons for the current backwardness of the Arab world.


  6. @Martin,

    We are a mixed bag. On product fill, standards are set nationally by NIST Handbook 133. (NIST uses the National Council of Weights & Measures to get agreement on a lot of things which the states formally have some control of). We use an average fill, with rules for sampling plan and allowable negative variation. In the appendix, table 2.5 covers allowable weight variation, table 2.6 allowable volume. We have much smaller step sizes with constant error in each step, but overall result is similar, percent allowed error declines as package size increases. Even on state regulated packages, I don’t think any state would wish to depart from H133 and have to recreate a complete local version. Plus if any amount is sold across state lines, the Feds would assert the interstate commerce clause.

    VAT: We are totally different, we call it sales tax and each state has their own rate, there is no national sales tax. Some states allow local governments to add a local sales tax adder to the state rate. States get very upset when you buy in another state (with lower rate) and bring it home and use it; legally, you owe a “use tax” to the state ilo of sales tax. You are supposed to pay any use tax with your state income tax. Few people do and few states have the resources to pursue it.


  7. One of the things that this survey reveals is that young people are utterly confused as to what measurement system they should be using in their daily life. They learn the metric system at school, they may get a job in a workplace that uses metric units (such as in the construction industry), yet they are expected to know their height in feet and inches, their weight in those things called stones, and to be able to know and understand imperial units, at least on the nation’s roads if nowhere else. No wonder they have trouble in understanding any kind of measurement system at all.

    If the UK, with little in the way of natural resources, is to maintain its standard of living in a world where knowledge (the UK’s primary wealth creator) can be transferred to anywhere on the planet at the click of a mouse, then the government MUST ensure that today’s young people are properly equipped to make their way in an almost totally metric world. It is clear that governments of all stripes, in failing to ensure that the metric system is the ‘default’ among today’s new generations, has let them down badly, and is continuing to do so. It is nothing short of a national disgrace.


  8. It should be possible to inform those who claim to be no Europeans and therefore reject everything that comes from the continent that Bishop Wilkins made up the blueprint of the metric system in 1668, therefore metric is also British from the beginning; that the British Association for the Advancement of Science contributed greatly to its development and improvement in the second half of the nineteenth century and that the director of the BIPM is from Britain.


  9. Han is quite right in what he says of course and the UK Metric Association has been trying to separate the European issue from metrication throughout its campaign. Britain has played a significant role in its development but not just in the nineteenth century.

    It should be sufficient though merely to recognize that the metric system is used globally not just in Europe irrespective if its origins.

    Unfortunately UK metrication has been hijacked by the Eurosceptic lobby who have wrongly portrayed it as depriving Britain of its freedom.

    The sad reality is that the European commission couldn’t care less and have done nothing to encourage Britain to complete the change-over. In fact the various exemptions that UK delegates have secured in respect of measurement directives were easy meat and have been used by politicians to make it look as they are tough negotiators defending British interests.

    Whatever the views of the reader about Britain’s relationship with Europe, make no mistake, in or out of the EU, the issue of a single system that everyone can understand and use for all purposes will remain, and it would make no sense to adopt anything other than the international metric system for that purpose.

    The results of the survey are strong evidence that such a sensible move will not happen by itself merely by teaching metric in schools and leaving it to future generations. Decisive action is required now to free our children of that unnecessary confusing muddle!


  10. Personally I’d expect the continentals are laughing their heads off at us as the UK throws away export orders with its measurement muddle, all the while claiming that it is somehow “patriotic”.


  11. M wrote “If the junction I am looking for is signed as being 1/3 mile ahead and a temporary sign warns of road works 500 yards ahead, how am I expected to know if the road works are before or after my junction if I’m unable to convert between the 2 units?”

    I believe that the 2/3 and 1/3 mile warning signs were erected in preparation for conversion to 1000 metre and 500 metres respectively. It is also normal practice for “Roadworks XX yds” to actually be XX metres from the start of the road works. So the answer to M’s question – in respect of road signs, 1/3 mile and 500 yards mean the same thing.


  12. So, Martin, from this muddle we deduce that 1/3 mile = 500 yards = 500 metres approximately.
    Yes, everyone in the world can understand that, just think British, think stupid.

    The 1/3rd mile marker has been used for donkeys years, it has always been confused with 1/2 mile, these two signs alone should be reason enough to ditch fraction of miles on signs from a totally different perspective (road safety alone), but the confusion persists.

    A driver having to make “assumptions” of this nature while driving is a cause of accidents.


  13. 1/3 mile ? 536m
    500 yards ? 457m
    500m = 500m

    That’s quite a discrepancy if forced to make approximations to cope with the antiquated units used on road signs in the UK. Discrepancies of that magnitude are more than enough to cause one to take the wrong road and/or drive into a bridge parapet. Driving is complicated enough without this sort of stupidity. Just across the channel odometers, satnavs and road signs work cooperatively.


  14. There is a 10% tolerance on road sign distances. The yard is 8.6% shorter than a metre or, conversely the metre is 9.4% longer than a yard.

    It would seem then that replacing “yds” with “m” on signs without altering the numbers would leave the indicated distance within accepted tolerances.

    Unfortunately it is not as simple as that because, arguably, if an indicated distance in yards is say 10% longer than the true distance, then such a conversion would result in the indicated distance being 17.7% longer than the true distance.

    However take a look at this extract from the traffic signs manual on the UKMA web site:
    (look at the last diagram on the page).

    Could it be then that imperial road signs are, in general, placed using round metric distances but marked in “yds”?

    I am not suggesting that imperial distance indications present a serious hazard by virtue of a systematic discrepancy of 8.6%, but it does mean that signs would not have to be moved for the purposes of a changeover.

    If 1/4, 1/3, 1/2, 2/3 and 3/4 mile signs are literally correct then replacing them with 0.4 km, 0.5 km, 0.8 km, 1 km and 1.2 km (or their equivalent in metres) would probably be fit for purpose too. At worst there would be a 66 m discrepancy (for the l km case) which represents about 2 seconds of travel time at the motorway/dual carriageway speed limit. In any case there are always plenty of other signs on the final approaches.


  15. Still always disheartening to see the BBC news web site provide both Imperial and metric measures (with Imperial first at times) instead of just metric.

    The report on the latest snow storm moving into eastern Canada provides yet another such example:

    Ironically, all of the reports on this very same storm disseminated in Canada, itself are entirely in metric.


  16. David Cameron is reported to have said recently in relation to investment in 5G,
    “Countries like the UK and Germany will only succeed if we have a relentless drive for new ideas and innovations”.
    So what about those medieval measurements on our road traffic signs? Not exactly new or innovative.


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