An education adviser

Why we need to think metric

John Muir

Politicians have consistently ignored the lead given by schools and have left us in a land where petrol is sold in litres and measured in miles per gallon. It is generally acknowledged that metric units have been the primary ones in education in Britain since 1974 and in many cases were introduced earlier. Britain has delivered petrol from the pumps in litres for well over a decade yet after three decades of metric education there is no plan to complete the conversion to encompass all measurement in society.

A good number of years ago, increasingly aware that my own children were part of a mathematically confused generation, I put pen to paper to suggest that society was out of step with education as far as metrication was concerned. When I embarked on a career in primary education in the early seventies, the teaching of imperial measures was forbidden; textbooks that mentioned them were purged and even conversion charts were discouraged.

Why, then, despite two generations of young people emerging from schools, do most of us fail to “think metric”? If asked your weight or height, do you reply in metric terms? Probably not, even if you had it drilled into you at school. There are those, of course, who would argue that common metaphoric parlance, such as “a yardstick to measure against”, “give him an inch and he takes a mile”, and “she always wants her pound of flesh” are undermined by the mere mention of metrication. I concede that “give him a centimetre and he’ll take a kilometre” does not ring true. However, I am in no doubt that the current confusion, and the occasional public show of defiance, is down to the fact that successive governments have failed to follow the 30-year lead of schools.

While class lessons in mental arithmetic may be making a welcome comeback, the maths curriculum is solidly built on a metric foundation. Any suggestion that teaching in our currency should revert to bases other than 10 would be rejected at the highest level. Surely, then, there should be an “M for Metrication Day” when, once and for all, any remaining imperial measurements would go the way of pounds, shillings and pence as decreed on “D for Decimal Day” all those years ago. Imagine the chaos there would be at the tills if we had kept the old penny, the half crown and the ten bob note to be used whenever we liked alongside new pence. Yet, in terms of the move to the metrication of measure, we are doing just that.

It is not only foreign visitors who are bemused to find a society that sells milk in containers all marked in litres but some of a “pint” size; or where petrol is sold in litres, but whose citizens think of the performance of their cars in terms of miles to the gallon. And where else in Europe do they measure floor space in square metres but insist on road signs giving distances in miles?

The reality is that it did not cost much to tell shopkeepers to change to metric measures but it would certainly cost more to change all our road signs. There is a certain hypocrisy here, which defies logic and causes confusion in maths teaching.

We are moving in half measures in the UK. It is as though, on joining Europe, we had decided to phase in a decision to drive on the right side of the road. For the first month public transport would move to the opposite side, cars would follow after that. Two-wheeled vehicles would continue to have a choice for the foreseeable future.

If we don’t do something about our pick-and-mix system of measurement, we will be the laughing stock of Europe, long after we have made up our minds on whether or not to join the euro. Worse than this, Britain is playing an irresponsible and cynical game with its children’s education. By failing to complete the full adoption of metric units, British governments have undermined the foundation of the mathematical curriculum. Is it any wonder that today’s children are both mathematically confused and failing to reach their potential in numeracy?

Appreciating measurement is a life skill that is learned both at school and at home and is intimately linked with numeracy. The present “schizophrenic” policy on units of measure is having an effect in the development of our children’s understanding and ability to cope with key mathematical skills in our society. They are able to calculate in metric but face imperial in the media, at home and on the roads. The result is a disjointed world – one part for certain calculations (metric), the other for everyday parlance (imperial).

It is time to end the mathematical confusion of our children by adopting the metric system once and for all across society. While the Government must lead by legislation, you needn’t wait till Westminster takes a vote. If you have children at school, use metric measures with them in the home, whether it is with the mixing bowl in the kitchen, checking their size for those new clothes or on the bathroom scales to find out if your diet is working!

John is an education adviser with The Highland Council. He writes regularly on educational matters in various publications and is the author of several books.