Putting Britain ahead …

On Newsnight on BBC2 last Monday, David Cameron, replying to questions on his personal views, said he preferred ancient to modern measurements. One of our regular contributors, John Frewen-Lord, speculates where such nostalgia might lead.

Mr David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister, has spelt out a number of measures aimed at securing the UK’s position as one of the leading technologically-advanced countries. The most recent announcement was that British schoolchildren should now be taught primarily in Roman numerals, rather than the Arabic numerals the rest of the world uses. The next phase of this program is to teach British schoolchildren primarily in Cuneiform script, rather than the 26-letter alphabet we use now.

In justifying such a move, Mr Cameron stated, “It is very important for the future of this country that British schoolchildren are given an edge over their counterparts in other countries. Part of that edge is ensuring that they use number and language systems that no-one else uses. That will ensure that the rest of the world will beat a path to the UK’s front door, and preserve the UK’s high standard of living.”

Already, manufacturers of computers and calculators have been instructed to produce special keyboards for the UK, with Roman numerals and Cuneiform script replacing the characters we see today. Most manufacturers have promised to keep the extra costs incurred down to no more than double current costs.

On the roads, the current system of speed and distance road signs will be replaced with those using Roman numerals. New cars will have speedometers reading in Roman numerals only, while owners of existing cars will have to convert their current speedometers. It is estimated that such additional costs can be kept to less than £500 per vehicle. Road signs involving words will be converted to Cuneiform over a period of time. The UKMA is already planning to re-issue its booklet on road signs, now renamed as ‘Roman Signs Ahead’.

But this is merely the tip of the iceberg. The Prime Minister’s party, at its recently held conference, vowed to move Britain much farther into the future (or should that be the past?). New concepts in data transmission are being secretly trialled. In an effort to show the Party’s ‘Green’ credentials, these will involve using natural materials only, such as stone, animal skins and wood. Such data transmission does not even use any electricity; instead it uses unique physical implements to embed the script directly into the stone or wood. Mr Cameron stated that he preferred such methods, regardless of the fact that some people might consider them retrograde.

Once a new generation of children emerges schooled in these proposed changes in British society, there will be many companies ready to cater to this new way of thinking. We have already learnt of the following books or articles – all in Cuneiform script of course – that will help British society to adjust to the changes coming:

  • Stone tablets without tears – how to choose the right stone and the correct implements to get perfect results every time.
  • Pyramid-Building for Dummies
  • Become a Gladiator! An exciting new career opportunity.
  • Togas for your children – don’t let your children be embarrassed in front of their friends by wearing last year’s toga.
  • Is the wheel really that good? We test the latest stone wheel head-to-head against traditional log rollers.
  • The latest Autumn collection of cave paintings – keep your cave looking fresh with these exiting new designs.

Some critics have suggested to Mr Cameron that his decision to change British society in this way – starting with the teaching of numeracy in schools primarily using Roman numerals – was out of touch with the way the world is developing in the 21st century. “Nonsense!” was the Prime Minister’s response. “It is important that we in Britain punch above our weight in today’s world. And switching the way our society develops is key to that initiative. I have already instructed the Minister for Education to start withdrawing all books showing Arabic numerals. That way we in Britain can show the world that we mean business!”

There was no comment from the other party leaders.

38 thoughts on “Putting Britain ahead …”

  1. He should certainly require a return to Latin as the official language (think of the good times of the Roman era) or, possibly, classical Greek as an alternative.


  2. This would make a hillarious April Fool story if it wasn’t so close to the truth. I was staggered to learn recently that the latest school curriculum includes the requirement for pupils to be able to multiply and divide using Roman numerals!

    All children need to be proficient in maths if they are to find employment in the 21st century global economy. I can’t think of a more insane way to switch pupils off this most important subject than forcing them to sit exams with Roman numeral arithmetic.

    On the subject of the Newsnight interview, what on Earth was Mr Cameron thinking when he said that he would prefer pupils to be taught primarily using pounds and ounces. Pounds and ounces have no practical use whatsoever in modern Britain – unless the sole intention is for every pupil to compete in the Great British Bake-off using long-defunct recipe books.

    Every pupil needs to learn the metric system, the international standard used in the world of work. Forcing them to learn an additional obsolete measurement system, be it primarily or not, will serve no purpose at all. The confusion it will cause can only be detrimental.

    The mind boggles at how science will be taught primarily in pounds and ounces (F = ma anyone?).

    This whole question seems to have originated from the failure of successive governments to metricate road signs – the last remaining task of our stalled metrication programme. Surely the obvious solution is to finish the job by switching the road signs rather than causing havoc with our children’s education.


  3. A good spoof article, he might as well have said “let’s go back to the stone age, and live like hunter-gatherers, so we can use our body parts and stones as measures”.

    It seems that the powers-that-be would do anything, including ruining pupils’ futures and an entire education curriculum, just to avoid changing road signs. Nothing new there, I feel sorry for the pupils, young people still in the UK and non-British nationals who have moved to the UK.

    Sadly I don’t see any change until road signs are changed, and supplementary indications removed thereafter, that is the key. But I do wonder who is blocking the idea of full metrication.

    And a minor bit of nitpicking – the numerals are not “Arabic Numerals” but really Indian Numerals, even if European and Arabic ones are themselves variants of the Indian ones. The decimal system and zero were invented in Ancient India.


  4. @M

    Spot on with your comments on the issue of road sign conversion.

    The experience of both Canada and Ireland support this. Canadians regularly use “kilometers” and never “miles” because all of the speed limit signs and distance signs use “kilometers” and Canadian map makers followed suit by printing their maps only with kilometers (I believe).

    Similarly in Ireland. My correspondent there tells me that the presence of kilometer-0nly signs shifted the mindset of the Irish populace to understand distances and speeds in metric, which then quickly showed up in their usage in conversation as well as in all the Irish media.

    The Canadian experience is particularly compelling since most Canadians live near the US border and are bombarded with American media using “Imperial”. Nonetheless, all the Canadians I have seen on TV programs or talked to in person use “kilometers” for distance, “kilometers per hour” for speed, and by the way “Celsius” for temperature because all Canadian media use Celsius exclusively. (Canadians consistently tell me that Fahrenheit is pure gibberish to them … so much for UKIP claims that Imperial measures of all sorts are more “natural”.)

    So, if the effects of metric road signs are so powerful that even a country that is as much under the thumb of the USA as Canada is can go fully metric in that particular arena, imagine the effect converting all road signs to metric would have in the UK. (And having British media use metric exclusively would completely wipe away Imperial in a matter of a couple of years … or less!)


  5. A few simple (and serious) questions for David Cameron – if imperial units are reintroduced into our schools as the dominant unit of measure:

    1. How long will it take to rewrite the syllabus?

    2. Will the syllabus be updated to instruct pupils how best to use 21st Century tools such as calculators and spread-sheets when manipulating imperial units?

    3. How long does he estimate it will take to teach the teachers how to teach the new syllabus? He should bear in mind that the majority of the teachers who are under 55 have little experience in manipulating quantities expressed in imperial units. (Manipulation includes addition, subtraction, calculating averages etc).

    4. What does he plan to drop from the timetable to accommodate the extra time that will be taken up learning imperial units?


  6. Oh, how I miss the days of dipping my quill in a freshly made mix of soot and water to write my Latin essay.

    But come on now, this bit about Roman numerals, (Previous article, Erithacus says: 2014-10-01 at 09:52
    ….. Oddly the new curriculum does require the ability to do multiplication and division in Roman numerals!)
    that is part of the wind up, isn’t it? Or at the worst I hope someone thinks our numerals are Roman and it is a simple (very simple) mistake.

    I was working for the Libyan government on revolution day, 1st September 1960, an Arabic revolution (my first time of looking down the shiny end of a roaded rifle barrel). It was decreed that from that time on we were to use only Arabic numerals. When it was pointed out that numerals used by the Arabs was in fact Turkish, and Arabic numerals were used by the western world, that decree was very quictly recinded and we were able to use both. We also had to learn to sign for our pay in Arabic before we could be paid, that took most of us less than 10 mins.
    Change is easy if there is a motive, difficult if you see no reason to change.

    If you were to read the comments after the Guardian article on this interview with Cameron you will see a staggering number of pro metric v the few pro Imperial ones, which for the most part trot out all the usual drivel we see from these people, like “cooking in Imperal is more flexible” (10% increase on 8 oz of flour is …? 10% increase on 1 pint of water is …?) easy, if you convert it to metric first.


  7. Ridicule and satire are two of the most effective political weapons, so John F-L is to be congratulated for hitting the right note in this article.

    Cameron was obviously caught off guard and embarrassed by Evan Davies’ question (see http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/30/david-cameron-schools-should-teach-mainly-in-imperial-measurements) and had obviously not been briefed with the correct Party line. This makes his response all the more revealing.

    Whether he was really unaware that his Education Secretary had just spent three years on the revision of the national curriculum and that it maintains the requirement to teach science and maths in SI units – we can only speculate. Of course, DC went to Eton, which doesn’t have to follow the national curriculum.

    In case anybody doubts that the revised curriculum really does require familiarity with Roman numerals, it is set out in in several places in this Statutory Guidance.


    It doesn’t actually require multiplication and division in Roman numerals – just the ability to read an analogue clockface in Roman numerals (at age 8) and decipher dates in Roman numerals (at age 10).


  8. @Erithacus
    Thank you for that clarification, I had found most of the information on the curriculum.
    I still wonder about the Roman numerals bit though, even in my day it was never taught as a maths subject, more in history or social science I would have thought. I did think it was related to being able to read Big Ben, but even that is not Roman numerals, no idea what they are. I don’t think there are that many clocks around with Roman numerals, we certainly don’t need a special subject taught to read them. I would have thought the ability to read a bus timetable in the 24 hour digital format would be more useful. So that just leaves the year date at the end of movies, big deal, they can learn that in media studies at uni.


  9. Considering the tone of the comments in the Guardian, I doubt that Cameron will be in a hurry to repeat his opinion that the UK should go back to Imperial measures. However, if you are not convinced, the most highly rated comments in the Daily Mail are just as scathing http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2774692/Teach-children-pounds-ounces-not-metric-Cameron-tells-schools-insists-modern-Conservative.html
    Or maybe you would prefer how he was hung out to dry in the Mirror: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/ampp3d/cameron-wants-imperial-measures-back-4349892
    I doubt that his call will actually go anywhere.


  10. As a trainee maths teacher I can confirm that the current national curriculum requires all children in the UK to”understand and use approximate equivalences between metric units and common imperial units such as inches, pounds and pints “. This is also the case in the revised curriculum being taught from next year. In practice, this means that teachers are teaching the imperial system so that they can teach the conversions in context. There are also a lot of maths teachers using the conversion between Celsius and Fahrenheit as an example of a “real world” formula to use in teaching of algebra. It’s quite a useful example because it’s of the form “y = mx + c”. Which means that a lot of children are learning the Fahrenheit scale by default. Until this stuff is explicitly banned in our schools we’re not going to see any progress.
    (Incidentally, the Roman numeral system does not support division.)


  11. p.s. It was also highly ironic that Cameron was then asked whether a pharmaceutical company should employ a UK graduate or a better qualified immigrant. Cameron said he’d like to make sure the UK graduates were the best qualified. They won’t find jobs in pharmaceuticals if they don’t know SI!


  12. Several commenters on the article in the Guardian made the perfectly logical claim that the UK (by the PM’s reasoning) ought to also reintroduce pounds, shillings, and pence (after which the commenters immediately rejected the idea as utter nonesense).

    I also learned a new expression: Has the PM “lost the plot”? (I’ll try to get that one going over here in the States! 🙂


  13. @Michael Glass:

    To reference your point regarding the overall viewpoints of the comments in the Daily Mail article, I read nearly 500 of the almost 1300 comments, and did a quick analysis of over 400 of them. Of those, I ignored any comments that were just general anti-Cameron/anti-Tory/pro-UKIP (with no reference as to whether the commenter was pro- or anti-metric), as well as those comments that were little more than a rhetorical/sarcastic question/comment that gave little or no clue as to the commenter’s predilections (e.g.”Does that mean we’re leaving the EU?”, which could be read in a context of joy or dismay).

    I still ended up with 314 comments out of my 400 that summarised as follows:
    Pro-metric – 216 (69%)
    Anti-metric – 69 (22%)
    Neutral/no preference/use both – 29 (9%).

    Of the likes and dislikes relating to each comment, and counting a Dislike for an anti-metric comment the same as a Like for a pro-metric comment (and vice-versa), I ended up with 6655 liking metric (72%) and 2545 disliking metric (28%).

    Now considering that the Daily Mail is notably anti-metric (and claims to reflect the sentiments of its readers on this point), it looks like the DM has got it spectacularly wrong. Even though its readership is supposed to be ‘conservative/Conservative’, between two thirds and three-quarters of its readers (or at least those commenting on this article) prefer the metric system.

    I’ve always said, here and elsewhere, that the UK is far more metric that we give it credit for, and these comments from DM readers would tend to support that assessment. It looks like that David Cameron, as many commenters said, is very out of touch – or as Ezra picked up on above, truly lost the plot. The question is, are any of the other parties going to take a different tack, or are they too once again (and to borrow a US expression) ‘going to kick the can a bit further down the road’?


  14. Another idea: bring back ‘English invoices’ in Lsd/ton.cwt.qr.lb with calculations in Roman numerals!
    I know that when the USA and the UK still used non-metric weights and measures in medicine, Roman numerals, not Indian/Arabic ones were used. (The numerals we use today are in fact of Indian origine, and came to Europe through the Arabic countries).


  15. It’s very sad that after 40 or 50 years teaching metric measurements in British schools many of the schools governors and teachers undermine what has been taught with publications like this one from the Joseph Whitaker School in Nottinghamshire celebrating a speed record achievement by their science department.
    It reads like something from the 1950s. Everything is in miles per hour. Kilometres per isn’t even given as a supplementary unit. Even the instructions on how to find the school are in miles and yards.
    With attitudes like this from the educators, what chance is there to ever move forward?


  16. @Cliff
    In the spirit of the original thread, you never know, Mr Worsley of Joseph Whittaker school may just get Rolls Royce to see the error of their ways and start designing their jet engines in ‘proper units’. Cubits/day could make a comeback.
    The reality is I am surprised that RR have put their name to this, I doubt if they use an inch anywhere.
    On the other hand maybe the satire is truer than the reality, this should do wonders for the kids space craft and racing car design careers. The third world will be falling over themselves for their services. Imagine being the world leaders, the only country in the whole world that can design rockets and cars in Imperial measures!
    Be fair, that is where America started.


  17. @Michael
    Could it be that as your sample is self-selected it isn’t representative? We can see from Cliffs revelation about a school that the UK is far less metric than you hope.

    The school presumably reflects the society and the community that it serves. the UK is, after all, still predominantly a miles/yards/tons/mm (yes, mm is in there) society 😉 .


  18. Hello Charlie. Haven’t I met you somewhere else before? Have a look at John Frewen-Lord’s figures. I think that David Cameron got into hot water because he proposed to roll back changes that had already taken place.


  19. Charlie P,
    The National curriculum states that children should be taught primarily in metric units.
    Mr Worsley has totally ignored what he should be teaching and constantly used units of which only rough equivalents are required to be known. He may be a popular fellow with the teachers and students but by using non metric units he has not performed his duty as a teacher which is to educate. Education includes preparing young people for the world beyond their parish.


  20. @Michael
    Sorry, I should have addressed my remarks to John Frewen-Lord, it was his analysis, of the data you pointed us to, that I was commenting on.

    And as to whether we have met somewhere before; would you be meaning in real life, or in the virtual world?


  21. In Sri Lanka, speed limits are posted as km/h. Whatever! When you start to think it through, “per hour” as velocity measurement is more than a little illogical. How can you possibly maintain a constant velocity for one hour? Keep in mind wind speed is posted in metre per second. So essentially short of a totalitarian world government or relocating to another planet, you’re stuck with a Luddite mishmash. But Britain’s the worst of the worst: Two totally incompatible measurement systems used concurrently, with a liberal arts Muppet population that can’t see any problem. Even here in metric Japan there are a few anomalies, tyre sizes for example. The irony is that the US occupying forces imposed metrication (charity begins at home, guys), so we fetched up with 1.8-litre bottles of sake, as well as odd sizes for beer and butter, too. So simple, you take the traditional local sizes and convert to metric, even if you get odd amounts.
    Obviously a little to pragmatic for little Englanders, or cultural imperialists as I like to call them. Bottom line Metric pals, remaining washed on the UK beach with the flotsam and jetsam is a stress inducing exercise in frustration.
    Jack, Japan Alps


  22. @ jackthesmilingblack 2014-10-19 at 03:48

    I must say I totally agree that speed in whatever per hour is nonsense. To me, if a car pulls out 20 m (thats metres by the way) in front of me, my speed per hour is meaningless, it is how far I am going to travel in the next few seconds that matters. To me m/s not only makes more sense but relates directly to the driving environment, I can see the metres and I can count the seconds.
    However, that is not likely to catch on any more than my duo-decimal system!
    Lets stick with what is possible and acceptable for the time being.


  23. It is preposterous and highly political that units used on every road in the UK aren’t properly taught in UK schools, but Roman numerals, of far less value, are!!!

    I like the comment that seemingly praises a forced takeover and subsequent banning of numerals and requirement for Arabic. That has a lot in common with forced metrication, and it is a good thing?

    I also like the anti-metrication comment from Japan.


  24. Kilometres per hour is better for long distances, while metres per second obviously is more intuitive for short distances.

    Anyway, we have a problem here: in SI, time measurement is still not decimal; and the base unit for time, the second, besides its name (it should be the “first” unit for time, and it’s called a “second”…!), often shares the same ‘ and ” notation used for feet and inches: historical heritage problems, again, similarly as for the kilogram.

    Will we ever have decimal time, thus? At least, this was a nice concept:


    … but sadly nothing happened, on the SI front (have they – see also the BIPM – become too conservative, perhaps?).

    Anyway, SI needs to evolve and become even better, and not only for time units: there are still some irrationalities, that should definitely be superseded by a more refined and evolved system.

    Ideally, at least…


  25. “It is preposterous and highly political that units used on every road in the UK aren’t properly taught in UK schools”

    As far as I have always understood it, the purpose of teaching maths at school is to enable children to use numbers and to manipulate them properly and effectively. Since the economy does not work in imperial units, I can see no reason to teach them. The writer wrote of units ‘used on every road in the UK’. Well, imperial units appear on road signs but, as we know, nobody uses imperial units to build roads or even make the signs put up along them. That is 100% metric. The obvious solution is to display metric units on our road signs and obviate the need to know the ‘old money’ imperial units at all. This would also provide a massive opportunity to remove clutter and simplify the signs since only one unit (the metre) is needed to replace the jumble of imperial miles, yards, feet and inches currently displayed on road signs. UKMA has produced some very interesting material on this very subject.


  26. @John Smith:

    What is preposterous (and for political reasons ONLY) is that imperial units are still used on road signs – the only major area of life in the UK where they are still used. There are NO economic, technical or practical reasons why this is so – and as the decision to retain imperial units on road signs came directly from the Prime Minister of the day (and further bolstered by subsequent prime ministers), this can only be a political position.


  27. The recent Irish experience clearly demonstrates that Imperial road signs can be dispensed with quite easily and reasonably economically.


  28. Just curious… but what does the Queen think about measurements, SI and so on? Has she ever expressed some personal opinion about that?

    Could well be that she’s more advanced than so-called politicians, who knows…

    (But probably she’s rather neutral about similar, more or less technical questions.)


  29. Dear metric measurement advocates
    At some point you need to face a very unpleasant truth: Namely that Britain’s best workable option in the current circumstances would be a return to full Imperial measurement. I can anticipate your reaction, but you really need to get pragmatic, because the all-time worst situation is the present Imperial-metric mishmash. The second worse being a return to full Imperial, presupposing it’s not too late. It’s painfully obvious that vast majority of Britain’s Luddite, Liberal Arts Muppet population will never accept metric measurement, and clowns like David Cameron are simply trying to curry favour with the electorate. Stop banging your heads against the wall and accept the inevitable. The writing was on the wall when physics as a subject was dropped from the school curriculum because the concepts were too difficult for dumbed-down students to get their heads around. Inability to switch to metrication is merely a symptom of UK trash culture where education and learning are ridiculed as elitist. A disfunction, borderline illiterate population, most of whom can’t even spell. So fly the coop and seek your fortune in the colonies. See it as switching support to a different football team. Loyalty and patriotism are so last season, particularly when you find yourselves pushed to the periphery of society.
    Jack, Japan Alps


  30. Come on, Sunshine. Returning to all-Imperial measurements is about as likely to happen as the return of the British Empire. So, what I suggest is this: treat the mish-mash as an opportunity instead of a problem and work out how to proceed from there.


  31. There is only one small step that needs to be taken, that is for the DfT to complete its part of the process and convert the roads. The rest, draught beer and milk can do what they want.
    As for this so called (DfT) estimated cost of converting the road signs, that has always been total nonsense. The DfT have just been exposed by the National Audit Office for fiddling the figures for the HS rail links, its a pity they did not do the same with those road sign figures also.
    Returning to Imperial just cannot happen, for the one reason that the metric has not happend, the resistance to change.


  32. The BBC reported that the Prime Minister is expected to announce the opening of a National College for Digital Skills in London in 2015. (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-30373587). This will be part of a £67 million initiative to improve the training of maths and science teachers.

    One of the best ways to improve the teaching of maths and science is to bring those subjects into everyday life. Persisting in using imperial units on road signs and the like gives science and maths the aura of be “geeky subjects”. If the Prime Minister is serious about improving the teaching of maths and science, then he should promote the use of the metric system.


  33. Today the worlds largest ship (the Globe) docked at Felixstowe. I tried to read the online BBC report on this vessel, also a related story on how big ships can get.
    They would be interesting but for the numbers. In each case I had to give up reading the articles as I got bogged down in totally stupid and meaningless sizes. I don’t know if some of it was done just to be funny, but funny it was not, and it is not realistically a comedy article.
    I got totally bored trying even to attempt a list of ‘comparisons’. OK, the ship is 400m long, if people know the size of a football field then they know it is ‘4 football fields’, we don’t need to have it explained. If you don’t know the size of a football field, or the Eiffel tower, or the Empire state building, nor the Times square then it is all pointless and confusing, not at all amusing.
    I guess this is part of the reason why the UK only unloads these vessels and no longer makes them, nor for the most part, load them with anything other than scrap metal for the China factories to manufacture our goods for us.
    Go for it though Dave, lots and lots of ‘daft’ units of measurements. More units means better education, right? More units of measurement means more people can understand, right? That means more customers, right? I tend to dis-agree.
    I find this quite sad and very depressing that we have to come down to this level.


  34. I think that comparing the size of the ship to the length four football fields was a good idea. It not only shows how big the ship is but it also illustrates the length of the football fields.

    On the other hand, 19,000 standard containers laid end to end equals 115km (115.102km exactly), and that should have been given in the report. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to work out: 6.058m x 19 000 / 1000.

    Now try the same in Imperial. The length of a 20ft container is actually 19ft 10.5 inches. That’s 238.5 inches (19 x 12 plus 10.5). 238.5 inches times 19 000 equals 4,531,500 inches. Divide that by 12 x 5 280 (63 360) and you get about 71.52 miles (71.519886363636364 to be exact).

    This actually is an example of how metric measures make calculations easier, even though the containers were originally designed in feet and inches.


  35. @Michael Glass
    You do make a good point on how much easier metric is, and that is the real point.
    However, if there was ever one thing on planet Earth that I never want to know anything about, it is a football field, a good piece of ground 100m x 75m, totally wasted. I am interested in the subject of the article, the ship, it is never likely to have football fields, nor olympic swimming pools built on it.
    It is 400m long, information given, job done. I never did get as far as finding out the width, I got run over with double decker busses on a muddy football field, and beaten with handbags.


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