A recent incident caused me to wonder whether our schools, far from helping to resolve the UK’s two systems muddle, are actually consolidating and perpetuating it.
I was wanting to rent some storage space temporarily and approached a firm that offers this service. I spoke to a youthful-sounding and well-spoken receptionist who was able to deal with my inquiry efficiently until we reached the subject of the volume of space I required.
“About 1500 litres”, I said.
“What!?” she exclaimed.
I repeated “1500 litres” (I know I should perhaps have said “one and a half cubic metres”, but I didn’t).
“Do you mean metres?” she asked, trying to be helpful without being condescending.
“No, 1500 litres.”
“Oh, we don’t store liquids” was her clinching reply.
To be fair to the young woman, she was working in an imperial environment, as the firm describes their lockers, cupboards and containers in terms of square feet (though presumably they mean cubic feet). All the same it is a bit of a shocker that the products of over 30 years of metric education don’t make the connection between a volume of liquid and a volume of 3-dimensional space.
This has led me to wonder whether our schools are in fact simply reinforcing in our children the dysfunctional approach to measurement that prevails in the adult world in the UK. Consider the following.
Although the teaching of metric units has been mandatory in state schools since 1974, the National Curriculum for England was revised in the 1990s to include knowledge of approximate equivalents of imperial quantities. The following examples of lesson plans for 11-year olds shows how children are being taught to convert between kilometres and miles (in both directions).
(Note incidentally that the guidance wrongly calls SI symbols abbreviations)
Similarly, at Key Stage 3 (up to 14-year-olds) children are expected to know rough metric equivalents of pounds, feet, miles, pints and gallons. See the following link from the 1999 version of the National Curriculum.
In practice, there is anecdotal evidence that some teachers go well beyond this, teaching the imperial equivalent of kilograms, metres etc and even how to convert from ounces to pounds and pints to gallons (imperial, of course).
It is clear that a considerable amount of teaching time is spent in teaching children how to cope with two systems. Arguably, this is a pragmatic response to the sad reality that in the UK in 2008, in order to function properly, an adult needs to be fluent in both systems. But how much better it would be for children, teachers and society generally if they did not have to waste time in this way. The cost must be horrifying.
But it gets worse. Although metric units are prescribed for maths and science lessons (and perhaps for home economics?), there is no such guidance for other lessons or extra-curricular activities. From anecdotal evidence it is believed that many teachers default to imperial in other subjects such as geography or on the sports field. Children therefore learn by example that imperial units are normal, especially for personal weight and height, whereas metric units are for science and maths.
If this true, then it undermines the argument that society will gradually shift to general use of metric units as older non-metric-educated people die out and younger people take over. In practice, society is becoming divided along educational and class lines. The better educated cope reasonably well with two systems and often fail to see the problem, whereas the less educated (who also tend to be the less well off) struggle with two systems and generally use imperial units since those are what their parents and their peer group use. Disraeli’s two nations in weights and measures.
Our education system could play a part in resolving this situation, but it fails to do so. As a step in the right direction, UKMA believes that teachers should be expected to use exclusively metric units throughout the school’s activities. In this way, the learning in the science and maths lessons will be reinforced rather than undermined.
Oh, and by the way, I didn’t rent the storage space from that firm.