Poor numeracy is blighting Britain’s economic performance and ruining lives, says a new charity launched to champion better maths skills.
You can find recent BBC reports on this topic on the following web pages:
- “Could you do this calculation?”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17236806
- “Poor numeracy ‘blights the economy and ruins lives'”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-17224600
- “Test your maths skills”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9701000/9701303.stm
In order to test the numeracy skills of members of the public, the BBC interviewer put sample questions to them. All the questions involved measurement, and all except the one on cooking times used metric units. These questions focus on real-world problems and have practical applications. Here are some key quotes from the “Poor numeracy” BBC report:
- “millions of people struggle to understand a payslip or a train timetable, or pay a household bill.”
- “almost half the working population of England have only primary school maths skills.”
- “weak maths skills are linked with an array of poor life outcomes such as prison, unemployment, exclusion from school, poverty and long-term illness.”
- “Only 22% of people have strong enough maths skills to get a good GCSE in the subject – down from 26% when the survey was last carried out in 2003.”
Chris Humpries, chairman of National Numeracy, called poor maths skills a peculiarly British disease that does not happen in other parts of the world and said that “just 15% of Britons studied maths after the age of 16, compared with 50-100% in most developed nations.” A KPMG report showed that poor numeracy skills costs the government £2.4 bn. The BBC report pointed to the damaging effects poor maths skills had on our science, technology and engineering industries, and on the ability to earn a living and to do jobs well.
Despite the fact that all the sample test questions from the Skills for Life survey published by the BBC involved measurement, it is extraordinary that no one mentioned the elephant in the room, namely the measurement mess that we face on a daily basis and how it undermines adults’ numeracy skills. We can guess why no one dared to mention it. Metrication has been a taboo subject for politicians for years because they are afraid to challenge the eurosceptics, the tabloid media, intransigent market traders, opponents within their own parties, the Department for Transport and public opinion.
Most of our competitors in the developed world do not face this problem. We have to deal with it on a daily basis, yet the Government refuses to admit it exists. Alan Young, a maths teacher with several decades of teaching experience, ran the ‘Dr Metric’ website before it was taken down and outlined on the site the problems that British school children face on a daily basis with our dual measurement system. Here is a quote:
“Measurement is not just one element of the Primary Mathematics syllabus, it is the origin of virtually all the concepts at this level. Consequently, it is very important to have just one system of units in place.
Because of our continued use of imperial units, British children:
- do not understand that we live in a world that is almost exclusively designed and built using metric units
- do not see the relevance of what they learn about the metric system at school
- are confused when reporters and weather forecasters mix and match imperial and metric units in the same report (often in the same sentence)
- have to use measuring instruments outside the classroom that have dual scales and are very confusing to read – the use of digital weighing scales does not normally solve this problem
- have to convert between metric and imperial units in both directions
- have their science teaching undermined when weather forecasters and media reports suddenly change to degrees Fahrenheit when the temperature becomes very warm
- are not able to compare their body measurements with those of their parents as parents are mostly still using imperial units – a set of units, incidentally, that they themselves do not properly understand
- lose everyday opportunities to undertake simple mathematical calculations at home based on measurement
- often move to secondary school without a good foundation in basic measuring skills and number work
- often see mathematics as boring and irrelevant and give up with the subject
It is not hard to see why children in most other economically comparable countries do considerably better in mathematics than our children. The banishment of imperial units from all aspects of our life would remove just about all of the problems given above that only our children have to face on a day by day basis.”
One of the questions in the BBC test included the combined weight loss of four friends. On this question, parents did worse than their children. Metric Views believes that the public’s measurement skills with ‘British’ weights and measures are no better than they are with metric, despite claims to the contrary by the traditionalists. So let us reformulate some of the questions in the BBC test, substituting imperial units.
Q1. Four friends have joined a gym to lose weight and get fit. After one month they recorded their weight loss on a chart. How much weight have they lost between them?
Weight loss after one month: Jo – 1 lb 2 oz, Hasran – 2 lb 3 oz, Kevin – 2 lb 10 oz, Cathy – 1 lb 10 oz.
Q2. How many pieces of wood with a length of two and a quarter inches can you cut from a six foot plank of wood?
Q3. Fred weighs 17 stone 4 lb and needs to go down in weight to 13 stone 8 lb? How much weight does he need to lose?
You can find the answers to all three test questions below.
We wonder how would members of the public have performed had the questions in the BBC test been in imperial rather than metric.
The Department for Education commented on the numeracy issue as follows: “We want the vast majority of young people to study maths up to 18 within a decade to meet the growing demand for employees with high-level and intermediate maths skills.” Unfortunately, it would seem that politicians prefer to see the UK languish at the bottom of the international numeracy league tables rather than to admit the link between numeracy and measurement or to challenge the current myths, misinformation and misconceptions about the stalled metric transition. The consequences of this lack of leadership are now becoming evident.
Answers to Test Questions
Q1. 7 lb 9 oz
Q3. 3 stone 10 lb