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:
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/.