Census, then and now

The 2021 census takes place this weekend. Preliminary results will not be available for at least a year, so Metric Views has looked at the results of the last census, held exactly 10 years ago, to assess two government decisions relating to metric education and the use of metric measures.

On the website for the 2011 Census there is a table of usual UK resident population by five-year age groups. This may be found using the link below – go to table 1a.

If these figures were rolled forward by 10 years, errors would be introduced – there is definitely a bulge of those aged in their forties – but these would not, we believe, invalidate the conclusions.

As we are looking about issues relating to metric education, there are two matters that should be borne in mind:

  1. All school students received some metric teaching during their science lessons at secondary school. UK governments appear to think that this should be ignored – perhaps they assume students were not paying attention or forgot what they learned.
  2. The teaching of imperial measurements ceased in primary schools no later than 1974-75, and was replaced by teaching of decimals – both currency and measures. Accordingly, everyone born from 1970 onwards would have been taught metric measures. Governments have referred to this as ”metric education”.

In 2002 the Government said, as a reason for not changing road traffic signs to metric, that “Drivers who have not received metric education at school would be confused by a change to metric units.” Then late in 2005 the Government made clear that the principal reason for not changing traffic signs was the cost, for which it produced a hugely inflated estimate. This has remained so ever since.

Assuming all those aged 20 and over are drivers, the 2011 census figures in table 1a rolled forward to today give the following:

Aged 20 to 49 today          26 193 000 people            60%

Aged 50 and over                17 797 000 people            40%

If the Government wished to persuade the UK population to retain imperial measurements on the country’s road signs then it was wise to drop the “metric education” argument – even if it was a valid reason in 2002, which many dispute, it would eventually have become an argument FOR changing rather than against.

Secondly, we looked at the recent decision to use metres for Covid social distancing.  Assuming those over the age of 10 and under 50 “have received metric education” and those aged 50 and over not, the 2011 census figures in table 1a rolled forward to 2021 give the following:

Aged 10 to 49 today       37 377 000 people            68%

Aged 50 and over            17 797 000 people            32%

Clearly, the Government was right to provide social distancing guidance in metric for this reason alone, though it is probably not the only reason why it did so.

As previously mentioned, the 2021 Census figures will not become available until next year. By then, social distancing will, hopefully, be a distant memory, but the estimate on how many drivers have “received metric education” might be worth updating.

2011 Census: Population and Household Estimates for the United Kingdom – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

3 thoughts on “Census, then and now”

  1. The battle over road signs has nothing to do with education or cost. The Luddites are fighting tooth and nail to keep one thing in imperial going and road signs is it. They know that once road signs are changed there is zero hope for a complete reversion to imperial. As long as one item remains they have a false perception of hope that a full reversion to imperial is possible and even likely. I’m sure they assured themselves that Brexit was going to be their best chance of fully reverting everything to imperial.

    The most idiotic component of road signs as they are is the use of the yard. I’m sure the Luddites are deeply aware that the yard is really the metre in disguise even if they are in denial. What gain is their if they see a sign in yards knowing it is really metres they are seeing? It is a real kick in their teeth and an ultimate insult to them to have their precious yards really being metres. Then you have exits and distances in 1/3 miles which is really kilometres. If they think that having these words displayed is teaching the young drivers to have a feel for yards and miles, they are terribly wrong. If anything they will know the words, but never get a true feel for the units.

    I’m afraid that we may have to wait until 95 % of the Luddites have passed and the next generation or two asks why do we still have signs on the road displaying units we don’t understand and never will. Then and only then will there be a strong desire to upgrade the signs. Or maybe by then personal vehicles will become obsolete and the sign issue a moot point.


  2. “2021 Census figures will not become available until next year” – I know that Scotland has deferred their Census until next year, but why the long wait for England and Wales (statistical) results? The vast majority of Census responses will be online this year, so the bulk of the data should be available in a matter of days or weeks.
    On the subject of road signs, I have to agree with Daniel. The imperialists will cling onto those for as long as possible and use every excuse they can come up with to prevent conversion. Road traffic signs are a clear indicator of whether a country is metric or not (even if the official measurement system is otherwise).


  3. In response to Modernman about 2021 Census data “so the bulk of the data should be available in a matter of days or weeks.”

    Unfortunately, it is not as straightforward as this. There is extensive quality assurance to be undertaken which includes a follow-up sample of census respondents to assess how accurately people completed their census return, quality assurance processes to ensure that census processes have worked correctly, and validation checks to ensure that the final results after any adjustments are credible.

    Readers of Metric Views will no doubt approve that the census is metric – commuting distances are calculated in kilometres, population density is calculated as people per square kilometre, and census outputs are also planned for 1 km grid squares.

    Liked by 1 person

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