Whither the National Curriculum?

We take a look at some recent information about the National Curriculum as it relates to measures and measurement.

The influence of education on the successes and failures of the UK’s metric transition has been a frequent topic of discussion on Metric Views. For example, in 2008 we asked if schools are entrenching the muddle of two measurement systems:


and in 2010 we reported the views of a person who had taught maths for thirty years:


We have now come across an informative article on the National Curriculum in Yardstick, the newsletter of the British Weights & Measures Association (BWMA), published last year, and we are pleased to reproduce it here.

“National Curriculum

On 8 December 1970, in response to a Parliamentary question on the need for school education in imperial units, Secretary of State for Education and Science, Margaret Thatcher said: “In October 1969, the Department issued a memorandum suggesting that, although pupils should become increasingly familiar with metric units, they should retain an adequate knowledge of imperial measures for everyday needs”.

From 1974, the metric system became the primary system. According to a government spokesman in late 1979: “The Department of Education and Science issued advice in 1974 that teaching should be conducted principally in metric terms while maintaining general familiarity with imperial units, and this still stands”.

Since 1999, the position regarding imperial has been that pupils should know “… the rough metric equivalents of imperial units still in daily use”, which implies pupils should think of imperial units in terms of metric, rather than as units in their own right. Earlier this year, however, the government made noises that this imbalance may be adjusted, at least, to acknowledge that the mile and pint are still in use, as this correspondence shows.

BWMA letter to Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Education, 7 July 2013

Dear Mr Gove

National Curriculum: metric and imperial measurements

In January 2013, the press reported proposed changes to the national curriculum regarding the teaching of imperial measurements in schools. For example, according to the Daily Telegraph:

“Ministers said that a new curriculum “goes further” than previous documents drawn up under Labour by requiring schools to place imperial units at the heart of maths lessons. Under new plans, a draft primary school syllabus requires pupils to understand and use the “basic equivalences” between metric and common imperial systems. The document also makes greater reference to miles to make sure children are fully aware of the standard measurement of speed and distance on British roads, it was revealed”.

Our Association (the BWMA) campaigns for the retention of imperial measurements, and would be grateful if you could please explain the new position on the teaching of imperial and metric measurements in schools, and how this differs from what went before? In particular, are imperial units now regarded as ‘equal’ to metric units, or is metric still the standard system of measurement in the national curriculum?”

Reply from the Department for Education, 30 July 2013

“Thank you for your letter of 7 July, addressed to the Secretary of State for Education, about the teaching of imperial measurements in schools. I am sure you will appreciate that the Secretary of State receives a vast amount of correspondence and is unable to reply to each one personally. It is for this reason I have been asked to reply.

The requirement to know about imperial measures is included in the current national curriculum. For example, in the key stage 2 curriculum, it states that pupils need to know how to solve problems involving a range of measures, including being able to undertake basic equivalences between metric and common imperial units, set in a variety of contexts.

This requirement remains in the new draft curriculum in year 5, in that pupils are required to understand and use basic equivalences between metric and common imperial units. Miles and pints are still units of measure in use today and therefore it would seem sensible that pupils should be familiar with their use.

Once again thank you for writing.

Jane Myers, Ministerial and Public Communications Division”

Here is the wording of the Minister’s statement, provided as an answer to a Parliamentary question on 7 January 2013:

Andrew Percy (Conservative): To ask the Secretary of State for Education what plans he has to improve and extend teaching of imperial measurements in schools to ensure an understanding of their use on roads and amongst the public.

Elizabeth Truss, Education Minister (Conservative): As part of the review of the National Curriculum, we propose to include imperial units within the new Programmes of Study for mathematics. We have undertaken an informal consultation on the draft primary mathematics curriculum which was published in June, alongside English and science. The draft goes further than the current National Curriculum in terms of what pupils are expected to learn in relation to imperial units, including explicit reference to miles. We are currently considering feedback on these proposals and the Government will publish a revised draft for full public consultation in early 2013. The consultation will also include proposed changes to the secondary curriculum.

Here is the relevant wording of the current national curriculum, as relating to imperial, published in 1999 and in place until early 2014:

Pupils should be taught to … know the rough metric equivalents of imperial units still in daily use

The proposed wording of the new national curriculum:

(Year 5) Pupils should be taught to … understand and use basic equivalences between metric and common imperial units and express them in approximate terms

(Year 6) Pupils should be taught to … convert between standard units … including between miles and kilometres

The word “still” is removed, which otherwise infers imperial units are an aberration, and the need to know metric equivalents of imperial is replaced with a more even-handed “equivalences between metric and common imperial units”. As before, however, imperial units are not taught as measurements in their own right; they are referred to only in terms of conversion. One needs to see the rest of the curriculum on measures to see how far imperial units are sidelined:

Draft curriculum, from 2014, as relating to measures, for primary schools

Year 1

  • · compare, measure and record the following using standard units for: lengths and heights (e.g. long/short, longer/shorter, tall/short, double/half); lengths and heights (metres, centimetres); mass (grams, kilograms); capacity and volume (litres); time (hours, minutes, seconds)
  • · compare, describe and solve practical problems for: lengths and heights (e.g. long/short, longer/shorter, tall/short, double/half); mass (e.g. heavy/light, heavier than, lighter than); capacity and volume (full/empty, more than, less than, quarter, three quarters full or empty); time (quicker, slower, earlier, later)
  • · recognise and use pounds (£) and pence (p) with different denominations of money, including coins and notes
  • · tell the time to the hour and half past the hour
  • · sequence events in chronological order using common terms such as: before and after, next, first, today, yesterday, tomorrow, morning, afternoon and evening
  • · recognise and use the language of dates, including days of the week, weeks, months and years.

Year 2

  • · choose and use appropriate standard units to estimate and measure length/height in any direction (m/cm/mm); mass (kg/g); temperature (°C); volume and capacity (litres/ml) to the nearest appropriate unit using rulers, scales, thermometers and measuring vessels · compare and order lengths, mass, volume/capacity and record the results using >, < and =
  • · read relevant scales to the nearest numbered unit
  • · tell and write the time to 5 minutes including quarter past/to the hour and draw hands on a clock face to show these times
  • · recognise and use symbols for pounds (£) and pence (p); recognise coins
  • · and notes of different values; combine amounts to make a particular value and match different combinations of coins to equal the same amounts of money; add and subtract money of the same unit.

Year 3

  • · recognise and use full names and abbreviations for metric units of measure
  • · measure, compare, add and subtract: lengths (m/cm/mm); mass (kg/g); volume/capacity (l/ml); and time (hours/minutes/seconds)
  • · measure the perimeter of simple 2-D shapes
  • · tell and write the time from an analogue clock, including using Roman numerals from I to XII, and 12 hour and 24 hour digital clocks
  • · estimate and read time with increasing accuracy to the nearest minute; record and compare time in terms of seconds, minutes, hours and o’clock; use vocabulary such as am/pm, morning, afternoon, noon and midnight
  • · know the number of seconds in a minute and the number of days in each month, year and leap year
  • · compare durations of events, for example to calculate the time taken up by particular events or tasks
  • · add and subtract amounts of money to give change, using both £ and p.

 Year 4

  • · convert between different units of measure, for example: kilometre to metre; metre to centimetrecentimetre to millimetre; kilogram to gram; litre to millilitre; hour to minute; minute to second; year to month; week to day
  • · measure and calculate the perimeter of a rectilinear figure, where each side is labelled in centimetres and metres
  • · find the area of squares and rectangles and related composite shapes
  • · read and convert time between analogue and digital 12- and 24- hour clocks
  • · estimate, compare and calculate different measures, including money in pounds and pence.

Year 5

  • · add, subtract, multiply and divide units of measure (e.g. length, mass, volume, money) using decimal notation
  • · understand and use basic equivalences between metric and common imperial units and express them in approximate terms
  • · measure force in Newtons (N)
  • · calculate, estimate and compare the area of squares, rectangles and related composite shapes using standard units, including centimetre squared (cm2) and metre squared (m2)
  • · recognise volume in practical contexts, for example using sand and water, 1 cm3 blocks or interlocking cubes to build cubes and cuboids.

Year 6

  • · use, read, write and convert between standard units, converting measurements of length, mass, volume and time from a smaller unit of measure to a larger unit, and vice versa, including between miles and kilometres
  • · recognise that shapes with the same areas can have different perimeters and vice versa
  • · calculate the area of parallelograms and triangles
  • · recognise when it is necessary to use the formulae for area and volume of shapes
  • · Calculate, estimate and compare volume of cubes and cuboids using standard units, including centimetre cubed (cm3) and cubic metres (m3) and extending to other units, such as mm3 and km3
  • · use decimal notation to three decimal places to solve problems involving calculation and conversion of measures.”

The quotation from Yardstick ends here. We assume the use of a bold type face for units in the above was included by its editor for emphasis.

Although tempted to comment on the article, Metric Views would prefer to hear readers’ views.

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20 Responses to Whither the National Curriculum?

  1. BrianAC says:

    First, let me thank you for sending me back to 'THAT' site, I had neglected it for some time and forgotten how amusing and entertaining it can be (MHO).
    Now, with this wording there is surely no mistake that metric is the system and Imperial the odd one out. It is about as fully metric as it can be given our continued use of miles and pints. I did note there is no reference to teaching infants about pints though, I guess that comes with secondary education.
    I find it difficult to see how the media can continue with their stupid outdated units when this is all so clearly defined (reference to BBC told to stop undermining the National Measurement System), especially in children’s and family programmes. I also note an absence of teaching multiples such as deka, kilo, mega as part of the system rather than just used an kg. I also find it irksome they still talk of 'converting' between km and m, also 'using cm and metres' which is just a matter of using the system, no 'conversion' nor 'and' involved. More enphasis needed on learning metric as a SYSTEM, not a collecton of units - vital IMHO.
    All in all though, a reassuring article.

  2. Ezra Steinberg says:

    BrianAC@ is quite right about the media continuing to use their "stupid outdated units". I just finished watching a 2013 BBC Natural History Production (Bristol) documentary on Siberian tigers and was aghast to hear the presenter repeatedly use "miles", "square miles", and even "feet" while the scientists who surrounded her (including one American as well as the Russians) used metric units.

    What on earth are these people thinking? After all these decades since conversion and they're still using the old obsolete units? (I can maybe cut them a little slack when it comes to "miles" --- though only a very little slack --- because road signs have not yet been changed, but "square miles" and "feet"? Unbelievable ... and most unhelpful.

    Let's hope the next government sees things differently and pushes the BBC to clean up their measurement act.

  3. John Frewen-Lord says:

    It seems so backward that we have to start teaching primary school children imperial units, for one reason and one reason only - the continuing use of imperial units on the nation's roads. Apart from the minor issue of pints in a couple of instances, there is absolutely no other reason whatsoever to continue teaching these imperial units in today's metric world.

    The worst part is that no doubt this teaching gets worse during secondary school. I suggested in a previous article here on Metric Views that such teaching costs the country many hundreds of millions of pounds annually in additional classroom time, which either has to be an addition to the number of annual schooldays (sorry, kids, your already short holidays just got shorter), or else the dropping of other (and possibly more important) subjects if the education budget cannot be increased. And all this to enable children and young adults to read obsolete road signs? (Remember that the UK is now the only country in the world that makes metric road signs illegal.) Utter madness...

  4. Martin Vlietstra says:

    It is noteworthy that the syllabus expects children to be able to convert between centimetres and metres, but not between feet and inches. This is probably the minimum necessary to handle the way in which formal education (learnt in the classroom) and informal education (learnt at home or the playground) interact with each other.

    The formal education system cannot be expected to sort out the mess that has arisen from having two system of units of measure. It is the duty of government as a whole to sort that problem out. Regrettably it seems to me that successive governments have bowed down to pressure groups for whom choice systems of units of measure are a political tool rather than a means of communication. Are we going to have to wait until there is a major accident that would have been avoided had the government of the day done it job in ensuring a clean switch-over to metric units?

  5. philh says:

    BWMA article says: "As before, however, imperial units are not taught as measurements in their own right; they are referred to only in terms of conversion"

    Imperial units *are* defined in terms of the metric system. They do not have an independent physical definition or prototype. They are not "units in their own right" and indeed are an "aberration" nowadays. The NC merely reflects that.

    I suppose BWMA were hoping that the changes would introduce a new requirement for students to be able to work exclusively in imperial for some exercises. Thank goodness that didn't happen!

  6. The Glob says:

    All the government has to do is this:
    - Drop the imperial units from road signs, replace them wth metric units – this is the key issue
    - Drop all imperial units throughout the curriculum.
    - Start teaching metric system as a proper system as part of the curriculum, not just converting between cm and mm for example.
    - Allow draught beer and draught cider to be sold by the litre as well as by the pint, this is a minor issue as pointed out
    And that eliminates the need to teach any imperial units.

  7. Keith Atkin says:

    When will this madness end? I receive puzzled looks when I tell people my body mass is 80 kg - and this from my GP, and scientific colleagues! Why are saucepans labelled in centimetre diameters but, in the same store, TV sets and iPad screens are in ancient inches?! I even heard astronomers on the new Sky at Night program referring to "millions of miles" and "six-inch telescopes"!
    This is depressing and is in no one's interest.
    The guys at my carpet shop advertise in both square metres and square yards. They talk and measure in feet and inches and when asked how they calculate an area from dimensions in feet and inches are loath to give me an answer.
    Enough is enough. We MUST ban the use of mediaeval non-metric peasant units.

  8. Mary says:

    Looking at the 'Draft curriculum, from 2014, as relating to measures, for primary schools' above, I didn't see anything about (food) energy. Surely the unit joule should be introduced - it'll be a useful way to help 'shed calories' (kcal)!

    I'm glad the newton gets included 'measure force in Newtons (N)' however please notice that the editor used 'Newtons' which should not have a capital letter. The symbol capital letter N is correct.

  9. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The final versions of the syllabi were published in September 2013. The maths syllabus is at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study and the science syllabus is at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239134/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_Science.pdf. In response to Mary's Comment, the bit about the newton has been dropped from the primary level maths syllabus, but it is mentioned in the secondary level science syllabus. One of the disappointing items is that compound units are introduced by talking about miles per hour. From an educational point of view, this is probably a good example, but it is a sad reflection on our society that the other concept involving compound units with which children might be familiar is £/kg.

  10. Martin Clutterbuck says:

    Does anyone know how the curriculum is taught?

    My concern is that pupils could be taught in such a way that pupils get used to using metric measures for 'things' but not for measuring their own height or weight.

    This could create an assumption that metric is for 'scientific stuff' and not for everyday personal usage, particularly when these children go home and don't hear the same measurement language being used there.

  11. Martin Vlietstra says:

    A article in the Times Educational Supplement (http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=95165) might answer some of Martin Clutterbuck's questions.

    From my own experience, he is quite right - many children assume that metric is for "school stuff". This was brought home to me a few nights ago - I was tutoring an "A Level" student in physics on a one-to-one basis. She confessed to me that some of her work was hampered because she was not familiar with switching between centimetres and millimetres when switching between rules, verniers and micrometers.

    When I asked another student how tall he was, he replied "six foot". I handed him a 12"/3ocm rule and asked him what that was in metric units. Unaware that twelve inches was one foot, he promptly measured his foot!

  12. Martin Clutterbuck says:

    Martin Vlietstra -
    Thanks for the link, a very interesting story. Interesting also that since the original article was written in 1995 the author would now have more success if she "embarked on the next task of trying to buy 100g of loose sweets".
    I don't notice any of the school children having any problems buying sweets using these measures at my local shop!
    With regard to my query regarding the method of teaching rather than the curriculum itself, I notice that alongside the article is a link to "KS3 Units of Measurement (MEP – Year 8 – Unit 17)". This publication does indeed have teaching notes, lesson plans, etc. Unfortunately it is necessary to have paid a subscription to open up these documents so, not having paid the subscription, I am still none the wiser.
    When discussing teaching and curricula however, it is important not to forget the contribution of parents. Where do they get their material to help their children? Unfortunately the media is not a lot of help. A recent Mail on Sunday editorial on the subject of allotments describes metres as "soulless". Poor kids, they need all the help they can get. Is that too much to ask?

  13. Han Maenen says:

    On National Geographic is a wonderful programme about the cosmos every Sunday evening. Wonderful but for one aspect: it is not metric but USC. What a missed chance.

  14. Jake says:

    If imperial units are not taught in schools as measurements in their own right, school children have a right to know why it is that imperial measurements are used on road signs, why metres and kilometres are not used, and why the government considers this situation to be acceptable and desirable. If children's entire education today is based around metric units now that the metric system is the UK's official system of measurement, it is a total and utter aberration to continue to put up road signs with imperial units when they have been ditched for all other purposes.

    It is time to bring the roads and road signs into line with the overall economy and all other areas of measurement, where metric units are used, and to ditch the antiquated imperial.

  15. Jackthesmilingblack says:

    The correct symbol for metric (and even Imperial) measurement units would be a step in the right direction. Because "kph" is not the correct symbol for kilometres per hour. But sadly CNN weather forecasters are unaware of this.

  16. Jackthesmilingblack says:

    I recently had to correct a Yahoo journalist that wrote "10km2 (6.2mi2)".
    Kids today, what would you do with um!

  17. derekp says:

    Humour with a grain of truth in an article in today's Guardian:
    "For most parents Britain's lowly rankings in the Pisa league tables are probably something to do with Italian football."
    Pisa league tables are comparative rankings in OECD countries for student performance in maths, reading and science:

  18. Various Secretaries of State for Education (particularly Mr Gove) have been keen on getting youngsters to convert from metric to medieval units and vice versa. However, simple calculations such as 10 inches is about 25 centimetres are quite useless unless given some real context. To try this out, I recently gave a group of A Level mathematicians who all had excellent GCSE maths grades and belonged to a maths club, a test. The questions ranged from ‘Tell me something that weighs about a stone’ to ‘I buy a summer house 14 ft by 11 ft. How many square metres of laminated flooring would I need to cover it?’ They had calculators available.

    There were eleven questions altogether. The average score was …… 3.5 and the highest score was 7 !

    If these highly qualified and well motivated students can’t do any better than that, what chance do the other 95% of the country’s youngsters have?

    The whole idea of converting from one set of units to another is fundamentally flawed and the requirement to do this in lessons and examinations should be stopped immediately.

  19. John Frewen-Lord says:

    The standard of maths education in the UK does seem to be woeful - and not just among the young. Just today I bought two items in a local market. One cost £2.75, and the other £1.50. The lady behind the counter, I would guess in her early 50s, had to resort to pen and paper to add the two items together. After at least 45 seconds doing the math, I ventured that the answer might just be £4.25. Undeterred, she carried on, now on the final column, but became stuck by having to carry one from the previous column. Eventually she came to the right answer - and expressed surprise that I was able to do it in my head, and so fast as well! Just what do they teach in school, not just today, but it seems since the 1970s?

  20. John F.L. If you look at the National Numeracy Strategy documents (if they are still available) you will see that there is a great emphasis these days on mental arithmetic. These documents were initially issued in about 1997, so there has been plenty of time for this to filter through. Many people believe that mental arithmetic has not been taught in schools for decades, but this is simply not true.

    As you will gather from above, I believe one of the main causes is the continued use of medieval units. This has not only shown in the problems I have outlined, but also in the fact that very few people talk maths these days (especially to their children) as they just don't feel confident with the subject. In my day, my parents were always talking maths - how much things cost, how much coal the coalman was delivering, how tall my brother and I were compared to our parents and so on. You don't hear many people doing this these days.

    We often talk about things related to the English language, even if it's just what happened in a soap last night, and there are many discussions about music etc, but maths rarely seems to get a look in.


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