Which Council in the UK is most metric?

Philip Bladon of Redditch puts this question. He also asks which local authority is most supportive of metrication. The editors of Metric Views, however, have doubts about whether this would be a useful line of enquiry, and invite comment from readers.

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A critic writes – and a response

UKMA’s Chairman received the following critical letter from a thoughtful correspondent (a student or teacher of physics). As it is better argued than most efforts from defenders of imperial measures, it was thought that it was worth publishing (slightly edited to conceal his identity) – together with Robin’s reply.

This was the original letter:
Dear Robin,

I must say, I’m suprised by the somewhat draconian arguments on the UKMA website that imperial units should be abolished altogether, especially when imperial units have not even been taught in schools for about 30 years. I write as somebody who grew up under the metric system (though exposed to imperial units at home), who used to think everything should be SI, and through experience now realises that the imperial system has a lot to offer.

Fundamentally, there is no reason to adopt any one unit over another, by virtue of the definitions, e.g. the metre is determined by the ratio of 1/(speed of light in m/s) – it could equally be defined in feet (speed of light feet/s). The choice is ultimately for consistency in scientific publications and engineering (and international trading), but there is no reason not to keep it in existence for everyday usage for a number of reasons (and in the same way most foreign people speak English as a second language, but still have their own mother tongue – thus exposed to 2 different ways of thinking). Indeed some of the arguments against imperial actually suggest the very reason why imperial should not be scrapped, but perhaps, with the exception of the Farenheit scale, be re-introduced! Metric units are not even rigidly adhered to in physics, where we revert to units that most conveniently relate to the scales of observation, for example energy in units of eV (the electron-volt) when talking about atomic energy structure, mass in terms of “atomic mass unit” for atoms, or “solar masses” in astronomy (yes there was the classic metric-imperial mistake at NASA on the Mars orbiter, which could have been avoided with a standard international unit, but that is not the argument here).

1) As your site mentions, many people use imperial units in describing length and height: it is precisely because the very origin of imperial units of length – derived from everyday objects – that it is so much more intuitive to use. What’s easier – describing somebody’s height in feet and inches, or in m / cm?

2) Numeracy skills in this country are at an all time low – now why could that be? Imperial measures, by virtue of not being very simple to use, force people to think about numbers and fractions. All units are ratios in one form or another, thus by maintaining the presence of fractions in the notation, we are reinforcing the fundamental nature of measurement; that what quantity you are specifying is not really an absolute number, but a ratio with respect to some pre-defined unit – the basis of which is arbitrary (and on this point, the foot is clearly an easier unit to estimate without a ruler than a metre). The specific ratios also being arbitrary – yes 10 makes it easier, but is no more correct than divisions of a foot by 12, 24 (half an inch) 48 (quarter of an inch) 96 (eigth of an inch) and so on (and here we can see the nice power of 2 relationship) – it is purely convenience, a convenience which encourages laziness in thinking and loses sight of the fundamentals, and consequently a severe dumbing down in science at schools, so that now the only bit of real maths a pupil is given, in the advanced GCSE science questions, is the “equation” for speed, which they are actually given – something which even when I did GCSEs in the 1980’s was expected to be known by heart even by the 2nd year, and was certainly not worthy of “advanced GCSE” status. What next – decimalise the byte?

3) Base 12 is more flexible than base 10, as with 16 ounces in a pound 12 is divisible by 1,2,3,4,6.
10 is divisible by 1,2,5.
5ths are less useful than 4ths and 3rds. And mathematically, base 12 is much nicer than base 10, you are less likely to end up with recurring reciprocals like 3.33333~ if wanting to divide a given length of something into an integer number of sections.

I think that to say everyday measurements in this country are in a muddle is slightly misleading – most of us know what these units mean, having grown up with both – it is only pedantism over having a consistent set of units, where in everyday situations this is not so important. The only circumstance where I can think that the imperial system is a muddle is in the vagueness of plumbing fittings, where for e.g. thread fitting diametres are not actually based on the thread diameters, but on the inner-section of pipe that might pass through them. Ultimately, I feel let down by this country and our declining education system for not having taught both imperial and metric units, irrespective of the need to have one international standard.

[name withheld]


and this was the reply:

Dear zxzxzxzx

Thank you for your comments, which I read with interest. I am not able to reply in full detail but would make one or two brief points.

As you say, because the Government started the metrication process in 1965 and then lost its nerve and has effectively abandoned the whole project, we are now in a situation where both the metric system and imperial units are in widespread use. The problem with this is that most people do not have a secure grasp of either system – let alone both. This does create genuine problems of incomprehension, conversion errors, mistakes and accidents – and in some cases actual costs of having to run both systems – one for internal transactions and another for the public interface. Take a look at our blog article http://www.metricviews.org.uk/2007/10/15/whats-wrong-2-systems/ for further comment. (You are welcome to contribute yourself).

It is quite untrue that imperial units are “intuitive” or natural. How long is your foot? What I think you mean is that imperial units are familiar – just as it is “natural” to speak English. People brought up in metric countries do not think imperial units are “intuitive”. See also blog article http://www.metricviews.org.uk/2007/10/28/imperial-units-natural/ which includes comments from a German and a Dane on this point.

The argument about the advantages of base 12 are academic rather than practical. There is no prospect of converting the world’s counting system from decimal to duodecimal, and it is obviously sensible that the measurement system should be aligned as far as possible with the counting system. In any case imperial units are mostly not to base 12: 16 oz in 1 lb, 14 lbs in a stone, 8 stones in a cwt, 8 pints in a gallon, 3 ft in a yard, 1760 yds in a mile, 43 560 sq ft in an acre. How would you divide a lb or a mile by 3?

The evidence on numeracy skills is patchy, and even if it were true that numeracy skills have declined, this would be more likely to be due to other factors such as flaws in the national curriculum, poor maths teaching and the prevalence of pocket calculators and computers and the general dumbing down of mental processes – e.g. “satnavs” replacing map-reading and navigation skills.

UKMA’s proposals are not particularly draconian. Indeed, they are the method by which Australia, New Zealand and many other countries successfully made the change. Unfortunately, UK governments have adopted policies that are the opposite of those proved to be successful – which is why we are in the present muddle.

At least I think we can agree that successive UK governments have let us down.

Best wishes
Robin Paice

Are imperial units natural? (and some useful rules of thumb)

One of the claims sometimes made by defenders of imperial weights and measures is that they are “natural”. The metric system (they may say) is all very well for science and technical matters, but for everyday life imperial units like the foot conform to the human scale and are more “natural”,  unlike the arbitrary metric unit, the metre. We examine this argument.

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Tesco – trying hard but must try harder

On Saturday 21 July 2007, I visited a Tesco store in the West Midlands. On many of the fruit and vegetable displays there were signs showing the inkorrect symbol ‘Kg’. (Article contributed by Philip Bladon, author of ‘A Dictionary of International Units’)

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Improving Numeracy – Why joined-up government is needed

Yesterday, Gordon Brown stressed the importance of improving numeracy skills when talking to the news media and the CBI. A modern, competitive UK clearly requires a numerate workforce. Numeracy is a life skill that everybody needs whether for managing your bank account, understanding your body weight or retiling the bathroom.

However, focusing just on schools is not enough. A child in Finland, Singapore or New Zealand will learn decimal arithmetic, decimal currency and metric units – and immediately be able to apply them outside the classroom. In Britain, a child’s numeracy skills are hobbled because it is harder for them to use their skills practically. As soon as children leave the classroom they face a hodgepodge of incompatible units: metric units (with which they can calculate) and imperial units (for which they have not been taught calculation skills).  If Mr Brown is serious about numeracy he needs to give British children the same chance as those in most other countries.

Numeracy is vital for everyday life and work, yet British proficiency is quite woeful. The DfES Skills for Life Survey showed that 15 million adults in England failed to achieve the basic level 1 proficiency in numeracy. In the workplace it is mainly applied to measurement or money but a Department of Education study in 2002 showed that one in three adults could not calculate the floor area of a room in either metric or imperial!

When I went to junior school in the mid 1960s we learned arithmetic not just with numbers but with pounds, shillings & pence; yards, feet and inches; stones, pounds & ounces – not forgetting fractions thereof. Some of my worst memories of that period were of doing long division and multiplication using “old money” and “old” imperial units. Working with a hodgepodge of bases including 3, 8, 10, 12, 14 & 20 was complex and confusing. Much time was lost in teaching us unnecessarily complex calculation, delaying the teaching of more interesting topics such as algebra, geometry and data analysis.

The educational benefits of using the metric system have long been recognised. In 1862 the Report from the Select Committee on Weights and Measures stated “Economy of time in education is one of the beneficial results of the Metric system. While the study of English weights and measures is laborious and repulsive to both teacher and pupil, any one can easily master the Metric system. The time which the use of a decimal system would save in education has been stated to be at least a year“. The report went on to unanimously recommend that Britain adopt the metric system.

Roughly 40 years ago my junior school teacher announced that everything would soon “go decimal”. He outlined the basics of decimal currency and metric measurement for us. The decision to adopt the metric system in the UK was announced in Parliament on 24 May 1965 on the merits of its simplicity, modernity and international usage. This was nothing to do with EEC pressure; after all President de Gaulle had vetoed our entry earlier.

Around 1970 we were told that then Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, was requiring us to change our textbooks and the new ones were all decimal. After improving my maths skills in secondary school, thanks to using metric units and decimal currency, it was hard to use any of it in everyday life. In 1975, when buying food for the first time I was faced again with wretched pounds, ounces and ugly fractions. My metric education was betrayed and I faced the schizophrenic world of easy calculation in metric, but imperial in most practical situations.

Today – 42 years after starting with metric – we have a “very British mess” of metric and imperial. Fuel is sold by the litre (rather than the gallon) but road signs are still based on miles (rather than kilometres); making fuel consumption calculations very difficult. Do you use metric, imperial or simply give up because it is too messy?

As a parent I have now seen how my children fail to apply their calculating skills because it is not “cool” to talk in metric units and they do not really understand imperial. One day my youngest son asked “Dad, how many metres are there in a mile?”. When I told him “1,609” he was very baffled, but would have been equally confused if I had said “well 1,760 yards”. He is not alone, last year Times straw poll yielded answers of 52 to 10,000 for the number of yards in a mile. We have now taught a second generation to calculate in metric units but prevent them from applying it.

Numeracy is not just for abstract manipulation of numbers but is a practical life skill. In almost every case it is applied either using measurement units or money or both. However, most politicians want to do nothing to change. For example, a year ago Alistair Darling rejected a call to modernise our road signs to use metric units. The Government continues to ban the metric units taught for the last 30 years from distance signs and spends millions on new signage using imperial units that have not been taught since the early 1970s. So much for “joined-up” government!

The decimal number system is the foundation of modern numeracy. Most calculations today will be done with a calculator or a spreadsheet; but they both only work with decimal numbers. It is time to acknowledge the important link between decimal numeracy skills and applying them using metric measurement. Parents can help by measuring and weighing their offspring using metres and kilograms. Teachers can help their pupils understand their classroom exercises by giving real examples of metric quantities like a kilometre, a tonne, a hectare, etc without imperial conversion.

If Britain really wants good basic skills in the workplace and the home, urgent and decisive action is needed. Just as “old money” was taken out of circulation in 1971, “old units” must be withdrawn as soon as practicable. It cannot be that difficult – after all Australia and New Zealand managed it in the 1970s. Let’s stop undermining of our children’s numeracy and complete the metric conversion once and for all.

If Gordon Brown really wants better numeracy he needs to look beyond schools and fix our shops, adverts and road signs too. This requires a ‘joined-up’ government approach to measurement; something that has been missing in the UK for four decades.

[Roddy Urquhart]