Nobody's thinking metric

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Politicians have ignored the lead given by schools and left us in a land where petrol is sold in litres and measured in miles per gallon, says John Muir

wo shopkeepers (one in Scotland, one in England) were taken to court recently for continuing to sell goods in pounds and ounces, in defiance of the ruling that all traders should use metric measures, in line with the rest of Europe.

Wary and confused citizens, who boast no political colour, have sided with politicians and newspaper editors from right of centre, who offered their support with typical anti-European fervour.

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 taching 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.

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 should be amused 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 does not cost much to tell shopkeepers to change to metric measures but it would certainly cost a lot 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 reminds me of the joke that Ireland, on joining Europe, 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.

Come to think of it, allowing litres of petrol to be sold in euros, while we trade in other goods in pounds and pence, might be a comforting compromise for a number of politicians in the election campaign.

John Muir is primary adviser, Highland Council.

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