The IET – how does it measure up?

We return to one of our favourite topics – the link between numeracy, units of measurement and British engineering success.

Some months ago, our attention was drawn to a news story about the UK recovery being constrained by a lack of engineers and engineering skills.

We suggest that the artificial and unnecessary separation in Britain between the units of measurement used in schools for maths and science and those used at home, on the road and by the media can only make it more difficult to “enthuse tomorrow’s engineers” (as the BBC story puts it).

We have now come across this article, written by a member of Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) and published in the blog of the Institution, that touches on this theme:

“In April 1952 the Council of the IEE issued the following in relation to the then metre – kilogram – second (M.K.S.) system which “… should be employed by authors in papers submitted to the Institution and that all students of electrical engineering should become conversant with its use”. In 1960 the General Conference of Weights and Measures recommended that the International System of Units (Système International d’Unités (SI)) should be universally adopted. Since 1974 SI has been the primary system of measurement taught in educational establishments in the UK.

The latest OECD PISA educational test relating to mathematics, science and reading identified the UK as having significant room for improvement and as trailing our European partners such as The Netherlands and Germany. In our own community, much has been made of both the need to attract young people to the engineering profession and to improve the public perception of it.

Returning to the PISA test, what can be learned from high scorers in the Far East as well as our higher scoring European partners? Is there a common thread? It appears there is greater societal acknowledgement in the Far East of the value of nurturing intellectual assets for future prosperity, although I have my doubts as to whether the daily time spent in study by young people in countries such as South Korea will be sustainable in the long run. In addition to other differences, such as teacher training, levels of funding, etc. the one issue that I believe is often overlooked is the signals that societies as a whole give out to their younger students in respect of mathematics and (applied) science. Does Germany, for instance, give out different signals than the UK? I believe it does. Whereas UK society signals the administrative manager and financial services worker as being is some way heroic, it denigrates the Engineer by permitting unprotected use of the title as well as refusing to accept the value of the system of measurement used in the study of both science and engineering. The opposite is true of Germany. There the title of Engineer is revered. As in the Far East, students of all ages are taught a system of measurement in which they have been immersed since birth, reinforcing that it is valued by society as a whole.

Does the manner in which the IET presents itself make a positive contribution to improve the situation the UK? I suggest not, in fact when considering the opening paragraph, it appears to be back pedalling. Recent issues of the Institution’s magazine “E&T” contain an unprofessional hotchpotch of “units” from SI through the antediluvian to the occasionally bizarre. For the professional, making comparisons is impossible without time consuming reference to conversion tables and calculation; for the young person who may be attracted to an engineering career, those other than SI equate to a foreign language and signal that what is taught in schools and colleges isn’t valued by the profession in which they have an interest. Couple that with the way in which the media and government signal which units of measurement are of value to society as a whole leaves the student confused as to why they are taught as they are. They simply become jacks of all trades, masters of none.

In the light of the foregoing I propose that the IET adopts, as has been done by other professional bodies (notably the Institution of Civil Engineers) a policy of positively supporting SI and campaign for its full adoption by all areas of government, the media and society at large. I suggest that through the full implementation of a single coherent system of measurement, for all and by all, one of the barriers to improving the UK’s PISA performance will be removed and a more informed view by the media and society as a whole of science and engineering will be promoted.”

(There are a few acronyms in this article, which may require explanation:

IEE. The Institution of Electrical Engineers – the predecessor of IET, both based in London.
OECD. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, established in 1961 with a current membership of 34 countries and based in Paris.
PISA. Programme for International Student Assessment.)

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7 Responses to The IET – how does it measure up?

  1. johnf says:

    Based upon some recent correspondence I’ve had with the leaders of a number of prominent institutes and professional associations, suggesting that the lack of making the metric system the ‘default’ in the UK could be a factor in the UK’s poor PISA showing, along with the shortage of engineers, the replies were on the whole disappointing. While lamenting the poor numeracy skills among today’s school-leavers and younger employees, no-one would acknowledge that the mess between metric and imperial usage had anything to do with that. In fact, one reply (from an authoritative source that should know better) suggested that Britain’s ‘proficiency’ (not really) in using both sets of measurement units was actually a benefit!

    As this article notes, few people in the UK seem actually comfortable in using any kind of measurement system, and I am positive that that the use of metric in the classroom (and perhaps the factory floor or drawing office as well) but not in general daily life is a fundamental cause of poor PISA results, and does indeed result in confusion as to what measurement units a person should be using, whether at work, in the classroom or in the supermarket (and even at home). I am glad to say that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (of which I used to be a member until retirement some years ago) does seem to be consistent in using metric units only (including using a space, not a comma, as the thousands separator). Other institutes and associations – take note!

  2. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Some years ago the Department for Transport spent a few million pounds erecting driver location signs up and down the English motorways (though not the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish). The Department started preparing maps showing these signs on various motorways and published the map for the M25 (since relegated to the Government Archives site at No other maps were published.

    I believe the reason was that Driver Location Signs used the dreaded “k” word – or that certain groups, who have more interest in the UK withdrawing from the EU than they have in ensuring our children’s numeracy were holding a gun to the government’s head (or had infiltrated government).

  3. Robert says:

    Well this post certainly attracted my attention, as only yesterday I was struggling with yet another IET magazine article in feet, inches, and stones per square rod (or something). I don’t know what they are thinking in using obsolete units, but it certainly renders articles unreadable. I gave up and looked up the subject on Wikipedia, where a much clearer description is given using metric (the Wikipedia style guide says that in general SI should be used).
    A few years ago the IET had become irrelevant to “young” engineers (which at the time meant anyone under 40) to the point where its survival was under threat. Action was taken to radically alter it’s image, but alas in its magazines it continues to use units that even British engineers have largely not used for many decades now.

  4. Sven G says:

    Why do you – or we (broadly speaking) – need them, then? Nobody needs retrograde institutions – just ignore them, if they don’t want to evolve… ;-) :-)

  5. Sven G says:

    … Which, of course, also applies to other things that haven’t evolved as they should (for example, a too self-referential and frankly obsolete schooling system, in the whole world (except for some rare exceptions), in an era that should rather be that of the web and a formidable open source, shared culture and projects; etc. etc.).

    Well, probably that’s also one of the reasons why the US and UK aren’t yet fully metric – simply and utter banally a (retrograde) lack of (futuristic, but then historically rather present, everywhere, except for the “imperial” – sic! – nations) ideals, sadly…

  6. johnf says:

    Sven G;

    I think I understand what you’re trying to get at! In the modern world (since industrialisation), the UK and the US were rather imperialistic nations – the UK in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, the US mostly in the 20th (and perhaps the very beginning of the 21st) century. That has left both countries with a feeling of ‘we know best’ and a certain degree of superiority over other ‘lesser’ nations.

    The world has changed since then. Other nations, once considered to be mere 3rd world colonies (or at best inferior states), have grown and are starting to outstrip the UK and the US – but the UK and the US just haven’t come to terms with that reality. These up and coming nations have embraced the metric system as the measuring system of the future world, something that the UK and the US have yet to realise.

    One day, politicians in both the US and the UK will cotton on to the fact that they cannot live in the past forever. We can only hope that this realisation will not be too late.

  7. Issac Cross says:

    Over the centuries, hundreds of measurement units and scales have developed in the many civilizations that achieved some literate means of recording them. Some, such as those used by the Aztecs, fell out of use and were largely forgotten as these civilizations died out. Other units, such as the various systems of measurement that developed in England, achieved prominence through extension of the Empire and widespread trade; many of these were confined to specific trades or industries. The examples shown here are only some of those that have been used to measure length or distance. The history of measuring units provides a fascinating reflection on the history of industrial development.

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