DfE fails to see link between poor numeracy and measurement muddle

The late Alan Young, a metric campaigner and a highly experienced maths teacher, mentioned the problems of the measurement muddle that British pupils face on a daily basis. On 1 September 2022, I wrote to my local MP to raise these issues with Department for Education (DfE). In their reply, they failed to see the connection between poor numeracy and the measurement muddle and suggested that the key stage 2 national curriculum addresses this problem.

In my correspondence to my local MP Mike Freer, I wrote:

“In 2016, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report entitled “Building Skills for All: A Review of England”, part of the OECD Skills Studies series of reports, which you can find at:
building-skills-for-all-review-of-england.pdf (oecd.org)

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 is “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 when it was published.

Although the OECD report focuses on England, it covers a large majority of UK citizens. Out of a total UK population of 68 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.”. In the OECD numeracy rankings, England was ranked 22nd out of 23 developed countries.

Alan Young, a maths teacher with several decades of teaching experience, has described the problems that British school children face on a daily basis in the Summary Sheet page of his booklet, “How Big is an Acre? No-one knows”. He says “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.”

Can you please ask the Secretary of State for Education what he thinks the solution is to these problems.”

On 12 October, my MP received the following response from Kelly Tolhurst, Minister of State for Schools and Childhood:

On the issue of numeracy levels, the Minister says:

“Regarding Mr Cohen’s concerns about the current numeracy levels of British school children, the recent Schools White Paper, titled ‘Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child’, sets out the government’s ambitions for numeracy. This includes the ambition that, by 2030, 90% of primary school children will achieve the expected standard in mathematics, and the percentage of children meeting the expected standard in the worst performing areas will have increased by a third. The Schools White Paper also sets out the ambition that, in secondary schools, the national GCSE average grade in mathematics will increase from 45 in 2019 to 5 by 2030. A copy of the Schools White Paper can be found by searching for ‘Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child’ on GOV.UK.

Furthermore, to improve numeracy in key stages 1 to 4, in 2014 the government established the Maths Hubs programme, which aims to deliver long-term sustainable improvements in the way that mathematics is taught. These hubs focus on delivering the Teaching for Mastery programme, which is based on high-performing East-Asian areas, such as Shanghai, and draws on practices that have previously been highlighted as effective in Ofsted’s mathematics research review. The Mastery approach focuses on depth of understanding and deliberately avoids setting a low bar for pupils, instead aiming to foster a culture where everyone can succeed in mathematics through hard work. Details of the Maths Hubs programme can be found by searching for ‘Maths Hubs’ on the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM) website.”

On my concerns about the problems caused by the measurement muddle for British schoolchildren, the Minister says:

“Regarding Mr Cohen’s concerns about metric and imperial units, the key stage 2 national curriculum requires that students use common metric units, as well as understanding and using approximate equivalences between metric units and common imperial units. This includes explicit reference to some common imperial units, such as miles, inches and pints. These units of measure remain in common use in the United Kingdom and we therefore expect pupils to be familiar with them.”

This has not worked so far. British schoolchildren still face the problems on a daily basis that Alan Young describes. The real solution to these problems would be to end the measurement muddle in the UK. Alan Young explains why:

“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.”

Like the rest of the government, the DfE fails to acknowledge this basic fact.

Alan Young’s original website was at drmetric.com, but this became defunct some time after his death. His website has been reproduced in honour of his memory at https://drmetric.wordpress.com/.

8 thoughts on “DfE fails to see link between poor numeracy and measurement muddle”

  1. 1.Very interesting, and it is good to know that Alan Young’s website continues to provide excellent info. https://drmetric.wordpress.com/.
    +=+=+=+
    2.And for other parliamentarians, (both members of the House of Commons, and the House of Lords), ‘Do they know how big an acre is?’ ….
    *Readers of Metric Views, after looking at Alan’s publication, may like to ask their local MP this and other questions.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Using to polite expression of ministers burying their heads in the sand, we are not likely to see any change any time soon. It is all a bit involved for my old brain now.
    Most of this is plain common sense if only on the one issue of ‘approximate conversions’ between dual units why???? Better to use just one set of units correctly most of us think. I notice somebody else here recently pointed out a certain weather reader giving a temperature of “twenty-sixty-eight”, I do wonder what information that is supposed to give to many viewers.
    Deliberately opening a can of worms about a certain recent space launch where (presumably) USC, imperial and metric all mixed up in one spectacular failure. Just what chance do the youth of today have of mastering space age precision with this muddle in their heads, it was close to debilitating in my day with having to convert everything before any meaningful calculation could be made.
    I do also note in particular that only “common” metric units are considered worthy of our education system which is a bit limiting.

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  3. The only reason certain imperial units remain ‘in common use’ is because the government has not phased them out, as it has other imperial units which have been ‘retired’. No one is clamouring for their retention. Given that, I am surprised that the Minister only refers to miles, pints and inches as being in common use and does not mention yards and feet as well as stones and pounds. All of these are not only in common use but are in official use, either on road signs, as supplementary units of weight in the sale of goods, or in conversions of height and weight given to NHS patients. If I were looking at the British metrication programme from another planet, I would conclude that there in fact never was the intention to modernise the country’s measurements, but merely to introduce metric units where they seemed more expedient for trade and industry or for science and medicine. It seems as if they were intended for use by business people, scientists and other professionals but not for the ordinary public. How does a government think that will work? If the government is looking at ‘high-performing East Asian areas’, perhaps it should start by realising that students there are not encumbered by having to learn medieval units of measurment simply because they have been left ‘in common use’ by the government and are not expected to have to learn conversions and equivalences between different measurement systems. That in itself is an enormous saving of energy in the form of teaching time which can be devoted to other learning. As others frequently point out on these threads, familiarity comes with use. If British students leave their school building and see medieval units on the road signs outside instead of the metric units they have just learnt, they will not internalise those metric units and use them on a default basis. The only way to overcome this is, as the late Dr Young pointed out many times, to complete the conversion to metric units in the areas still outstanding. Starting with the road signs and with area measurements.

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  4. Peter’s father is driving at 70 mph. Peter has never been taught how to convert that into ft/s or yd/s as they don’t do that type of problem at school – schools only work in weird things like metres which are not used by real people. (Peter’s grandfather probably recalls factors like 1760 and 5280, but these factors are not taught these days).

    Piet’s father is driving at 100 km/h (the maximum daytime speed limit on Dutch motorways). Part of his education has been how to convert that to m/s. Moreover, as he looks out of the car window he can see the hectometerpalen (hectometre poles) flash by, so he can estimate what 100 metres looks like. Unlike British driver location signs (which are located at 500 metre intervals, but are not publicised, the hectometerpalen are well known and are well publicised.

    Whose education is the more meaningful?

    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_location_marker for a description of a hectometerpaal.

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  5. Martin,

    Over the years of participating in the metric-FFU battle, the one thing that never worked in convincing the opponents was the complexity of inter-unit conversions. I’ve been told that no one converts between units in FFU (Fake Freedom Units or Fred Flintstone Units).

    For example, height is measured in feet and inches and no one bothers to convert height to say just inches or just feet. Distances are measured in miles but no one cares or bothers to convert distances to feet. Even with altitudes in feet, no one bothers to convert that to miles. Maybe because the calculations are difficult, no one bothers.

    Contrast that to metric where sometimes heights are given in centimetres and other time in metres. Since the conversion is simple one who prefers centimetres can easily and mentally convert metres to centimetres if metres are encountered and vice-verse. If altitudes are given in metres, it is easy to interpret that in kilometres without a calculation.

    This seems to be the main argument of why metric is better because of the ease of inter-unit conversions. But it falls on deaf ears to metric opposers as they don’t see the need to convert units.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. @Daniel:
    If you visit https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M%C3%A8tre_ruban_-_2.JPG you will see a tape measure that is calibrated in inches (without feet) – a type that is very common in Britain. If you now look at Law 7 for the game of cricket (https://lords-stg.azureedge.net/mediafiles/lords/media/documents/2nd-edition-of-the-2017-code-2019_2.pdf – pages 14 and 84), you will see that the measurements are either given in a whole number of feet or in feet and inches.

    How should an umpire check these measurements without doing a conversion?

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  7. If the UK government had converted road signs back when they had the chance, the UK would likely not be in the current metric muddle at this point based on the experience of Canada and Ireland and the positive impact the change had on the daily use of “kilometres” instead of “miles” in those countries.

    Still not too late for them to do it if they had the wisdom to do so though that’s not likely any time soon, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. @Ezra:
    If the UK does decide to change over to metric units on road signs, the problem of dual-unit speedometers could be overcome quite easily by demanding that the supplier of any new car sold after 31 December 2023 (assuming the decision were made in January 2023) would undertake to convert the mph speedometer to km/h at no cost to the owner. The simple solution for the manufacturer would be to make LCD speedometers standard in all vehicles (not just the top-of-range models), s change-over could be accomplished at the push of a button (as is already the case with many models).

    The main problem with a change of speed limits is the same as the problem that Ireland faced – the old Irish 30 mph speed limit sign was identical to the Continental 30 km/h sign, so the upgrade had to be done over a weekend and the new signs had “km/h” on them in small letters. In South Africa, where the speed limit signs were similar to the pre-Warboys signs, the new signs were sufficiently dissimilar to the old signs that they could not be confused with the old signs and work was scheduled over a three-month period.

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