OECD report highlights problems with numeracy in England

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recently published a report entitled “Building Skills for All: A Review of England”, part of the OECD Skills Studies series of reports. Ronnie Cohen considers its findings.

The report compares basic skills in numeracy and literacy of working-age adults (i.e. between the ages of 16 and 65) between England and other developed countries and also compares basic skills between the young and close-to-retirement-age generations within countries. Its subheading was “Policy Insights from the Survey of Adult Skills”, and it was written by Malgorzata Kuczera, Simon Field and Hendrickje Catriona Windisch. The findings were based on the OECD Survey of Adult Skills of over 160 000 adults in 24 countries and sub-national regions, including 22 OECD member countries, between the ages of 16 and 65. This report received widespread coverage in the British media.

Although the OECD report focuses on England, it covers a large majority of UK citizens. Out of a total UK population of 65 million, 53 million live in England. This article focuses on the numeracy of working-age adults in England and the fundamental relevance of measurement skills in mathematics and numeracy. The report estimates that 9 million adults of working age in England have low basic skills. The report finds that low basic skills among the young are higher for every qualification level than their counterparts with comparable qualification levels in other countries. The report says that, “While overall, the performance of England is not much behind many other countries, England’s young people lag much further behind their counterparts in other countries, particularly on numeracy.”.

Comparisons of Young People between Countries

In the OECD numeracy rankings, England was ranked 22nd out of 23 developed countries. Only the USA, the only other major hold-out for the continued use of non-metric units, did worse with a numeracy ranking of 23rd out of 23 developed countries. In the 16-19 age group, England has three times more low-skilled young people than the best performing countries on average.

One chart compares the 16-34 age group with qualifications below upper secondary level in different countries using the distribution of numeracy and literacy scores. For numeracy, countries were ranked in ascending order of the mean. Of 23 countries in this  chart, Northern Ireland (UK) was ranked 21, United States was ranked 22 and England (UK) was ranked 23. This chart showed that unqualified young people in England have very weak basic skills. This chart excludes those with foreign qualifications and first
generation migrants who obtained their highest qualification before coming to England.

Another chart showed the distribution of numeracy skills among current university students aged 16-34 where countries were ranked in ascending order of the mean. Of 23 countries in this chart, Northern Ireland (UK) was ranked 21, United States was ranked 22 and England (UK) was ranked 23.

The source for both charts was OECD calculations based on the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC) (2012) (database).

Comparisons of Different Age Groups in England

A quote from the OECD report states that, “For England, a further concern is that young adults perform no better than older ones. So although adults approaching retirement age (55 to 65 year olds) in England compare reasonably well with their counterparts in other countries, younger people are lagging badly behind.” The report expresses the concern that young people in England could fall even further behind their counterparts in other countries over time.

A chart shows differences between age groups within different countries and compares the proportion of the 16-24 age group with low skills compared to the 55-65 age group. In England and the USA, the younger age group’s skills are only marginally better than the retirement age group. For all other countries shown in the chart, they showed a much bigger improvement. A quote from the OECD report states that, “In most countries, but not in England, younger people have stronger basic skills than the generation of people approaching retirement”.

Practical Numeracy Example

The one practical numeracy test question quoted in the report concerned a petrol gauge. Survey participants were told the full capacity of a tank of petrol asked to estimate how much petrol was in the tank based on the sight of the gauge, assuming that the gauge is accurate. The 9 million low-skilled adults in England would struggle with such tasks. I suspect this has a lot to do with our predominantly awkward dual-unit measuring instruments. In other developed countries, they use single units on their measuring instruments whereas almost all our measuring instruments use cluttered dual units.

How the Measurement Mess leads to Poor Numeracy

One thing that is notable about the OECD report is that young people in England perform badly compared to their counterparts in other countries and compared to the 55-65 retirement age group. The 55-65 age group were born in the 1950’s and would have been educated in imperial units, which was consistent with what they saw outside the school gates, unlike the current metric-educated generation. It is notable that the US, another major country with a measurement mess, also does badly in international comparisons of numeracy skills.

As a result of the British measurement mess, many Britons have problems making sense of the measurements presented to them. This restricts their ability to perform calculations with related units. This was found in an independent survey carried out by YouGov, which you can find at http://www.ukma.org.uk/docs/sam.pdf. This survey found 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.

Alan Young, a maths teacher with several decades of teaching experience, is web master of the Dr Metric web site. He has been vindicated by the findings of the OECD report. Alas, subsequent British governments have failed to listen to him or to UKMA about the damaging effects of the measurement mess on British children’s education. Alan Young has described the problems that British school children face on a daily basis with our muddled measurements in the Summary Sheet page of his aptly named booklet, “How Big is an Acre? No-one knows”. It is worth repeating it here in full:

“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 medieval units, British children have many more obstacles to overcome than those in other countries. For example they:

  • 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
  • cannot measure kilometres on long journeys and cannot therefore relate what they read on O.S. maps to the real terrain
  • 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 as most parents keep these set to stones and pounds
  • have to convert between metric and imperial units in both directions
  • have their science teaching undermined when weather forecasters suddenly change to degrees Fahrenheit when the temperature becomes very warm and other reporters mix and match medieval and metric units in the same report (often in the same sentence)
  • are not able to compare their body measurements with those of their parents as parents are mostly still using medieval 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
  • are more likely to make mistakes (some serious) due to lack of experience of metric units in everyday life.

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 medieval 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 to day basis.”

The full OECD “Building Skills for All: A Review of England” report can be found at the following link:

You can find Alan Young’s Dr Metric web site at http://www.drmetric.com/. The Dr Metric site contains several videos that explain the educational problems caused by the continued use of medieval units in Great Britain. There you can request a copy of the “How Big is an Acre? No-one knows” booklet.

9 thoughts on “OECD report highlights problems with numeracy in England”

  1. Ten out of ten for “creativity”, but clearly zero out of ten for comprehension.

    The main problem with your analysis is that Spain, Italy and France (all long time adopters of the metric system) accompany the US and England similar levels of numeracy – and you didn’t explain that away.


  2. The OECD report is certainly a useful confirmation that numeracy in the UK does not compare favourably with other countries.

    We have to be careful though not to over-interpret the findings. Commentators are bound to cite all manner of reasons depending on their point of view.

    The report is too general to offer direct evidence of the effect of the measurement mess in the UK. It is, frankly, difficult to see how the petrol guage example exposes the problem of dual units. Given the way petrol guages are calibrated it says more about weakness in using fractions than measurement units.

    All we can sensibly argue is that common sense suggests that unnecessary conversions between incompatible units does not help or encourage the application of mathematics in wider society.


  3. The poor showing of young people cited in the OECD report tallies with my own personal experience. I recently hired a young (late 20s) handyman-cum-carpenter to do some work in a house I have. He started off wanting to use imperial units, because his father had told him that metric units are not used in the ‘real world’. That was bad enough. But he had left his own tape measure at home, and I then gave him my metric-only tape to use. He just didn’t understand it, and was completely confused as to the difference between mm and cm. Instead of learning how to use a metric tape, he went home and got his dual-marked tape, and carried on working using imperial units.

    But he couldn’t measure properly in imperial either! On installing a piece of wood trim, he had left a 5 or 6 mm gap at one end. When I pointed this out to him, he explained that it was because he had made a mistake in calculating the overall length, and had come up with so many inches and 3/8ths of an inch instead of 5/8ths of an inch, leaving a 2/8ths of an inch gap. In essence, his numeracy skills were all but non-existent. At that point, I decided that he was simply not up to a reasonable standard, and that he would no longer be doing any further work for me.

    Are his poor measurement skills the result of our current muddle, as Ronnie Cohen suggests? I am absolutely convinced of it. This was a classic example of what he learnt in the classroom (assuming he actually did learn something in the classroom) not coinciding what he saw outside the school gates (or what his father had told him to use when measuring things).

    When will our leaders realise this? With the Prime Minister not understanding (apparently) the metric system, our hopes that this country’s younger generations may move up the OECD rankings are weak at best. The metric system is not going away – 95% of the world’s population uses it as their only set of measurement units, so hoping that we might revert somehow into an old imperial world is not going to happen, nor should it. The sooner we can get this into our collective heads, the better this country will be.


  4. Apologies for a second post in quick succession, but I was just watching an ITV program on catch-up on Heathrow Airport. I couldn’t believe my ears when the commentary, in describing a Qantas Airbus A380 as the largest aircraft built, specified its dimensions as 280 m wide by 73 m long. 280 m WIDE? I must have mis-heard that, so I replayed that bit again, and sure enough, it really did say 280 m wide.

    This was a pre-recorded program, probably months in the making. Yet no-one caught the error. The most probable reason the error was not caught is that no-one simply understood, or was able to visualise, just how big a dimension 280 m is. And that is because of the muddle in having to deal with two incompatible sets of measurement units. And why even on major TV programs such as this one such errors get made.


  5. I too have come across comparatively young people rejecting metric units in favour of imperial in some practical situations.
    I am convinced that anyone who does is either weak a mathematics and can’t appreciate the advantages of the metric system or have swallowed the nonsense put about by those with a political agenda trying to discredit it.


  6. Loan sharks are allowed to operate providing they list their interest rate. Problem is so many of the mug punters have no idea what 1,000% means.


  7. It appears, John, that in any future endeavor you will have to go through a more selective hiring practice. You will need to test any applicant whom you wish to do work for you to see if they are able to fully function in metric. Anyone who fails your tests or makes negative comments about the metric system would be disqualified. In addition, they should be placed on a no-hire list such that if any one should request professional advice as to whom you would recommend to do work, these people would be named as not competent.


  8. The lock-keeper at Foxton Locks was describing the number of gallons the lock gates held back. Asked what weight that was and he hadn’t a clue. Would be so easy in metric; cubic meters, kilogrammes.
    Jack, Penang


  9. @Jackthesmilingblack 2016-02-18 at 17:25

    If these people who say they prefer the Imperial system actually did understand some of it then it would be relatively easy anyway.
    Thanks to these pages I have, regrettably learnt that 1 UK gallon of water weighs 10 of those lbs things, so he would only need to multiply by the very metric 10 to get the weight in lbs, American style. Where he goes from there is another matter. Divide by 2000 he gets American or short tons which would be good enough as an approximation, certainly few media types would know the difference.
    A better question is to ask an Imperial only van driver how many 45 gallon drums of diesel he can legally carry in his 35 cwt. Transit, or a charity driver how many Welsh rugby players he can legally carry in his 25 cwt, 13 seater Dormobile. Real life, ‘everyday’ questions in the life of a professional driver in the ’60’s.
    Yes, lets go back there, get a real life, not this pansy easy stuff.
    It is depressingly obvious that few presenters seem to know that 1000 litres of water is a cubic metre and weighs 1 ton, or we are not allowed to be exposed to such complexities on public TV.


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