What happened to the metric kids?

25th August 2000 at 01:00
WHILE most of us were away, Tesco announced that it is returning to selling food in pounds and ounces in defiance of a Government directive to use only metric measures at the point of sale. The supermarket chain claims that it is responding to the confusion of its customers who do not understand metric measures and if the contributors to the Daily Mail letters page and radio phone-ins are to be believed, the move is a popular one.

The surprise is that the start of the 21st century finds British adults prepared to admit, without shame, that they cannot cope with metric measures.

When I was a P7 pupil, as a special treat after the "qualifying" exam, we were shown how to add and subtract in decimals with the brief statement that we would arrive at the right answer as long as we wrote the points underneath each other in a column. From there the short step to calculating metric measures was a doddle to a child brought up converting ounces, pounds, stones, hundredweights and tons through each of the four operations. The teaching method may not be recommended but it got results.

By the end of the sixties the country was preparing for a changeover to a decimal currency while in schools the imperial system had been banished forever along with its tortuous calculations. The hope was that change would be driven by a new school generation who would know only metric and that the adult world would soon cave in to this revolution.

Yet, not for the first time, the efforts of schools had little effect against the influence of home. So the first metric children adapted themselves to the real world and continued to measure their heights in feet and inches and their weights in stones. Instead of pushing the revolution along, they contributed to the confusion.

The Government's Metrication Board widely missed its target date of 1975 for complete implemntation. The foot dragging had begun and with the advent of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 the board went the way of all things European not enshrined in law.

However, all was not lost and change has continued quietly. Industry converted, supermarket labelling began to show metric equivalents and recipe books give dual measurements. Even in the US there has been a new urgency to rationalise measurements after this year's dent to national pride when the $124 million Mars Orbiter craft was lost in space due to lack of communication between two engineering teams, one of which worked in metric while the other calculated in imperial measures.

It is difficult to see what Tesco's Luddite customers are so concerned about. I can't remember the last time I bought anything by weight in an era of prepacked food, and four apples are still four apples no matter how their weight is measured. Of course, this has nothing to do with maths or losing our heritage, but has everything to do with the metric system being invented by a Frenchman. Basil Fawlty still stalks our supermarkets.

Everything would have been better had the Government bitten the bullet 30 years ago and forced change through so that we would be in a position now where metric measurement was accepted by everyone in the same way that decimal currency has been. Instead, although no one under 40 has learnt anything other than metric measurement, we find younger members of the public prepared to say that they don't understand it - a case of use it or lose it.

One writer said that if God had meant us to use a metric system, there would have been 10 apostles. I hope it was intended as a humorous remark, but considering the level of debate on metric matters, I'm not so sure.

What is sure is that this debate allows one aspect of our heritage to flourish - the exercise of British compromise.

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