A recent report has stressed the importance of numeracy – and of raising the level of numeracy – both for people with learning difficulties and for people who are otherwise well qualified. In this article Martin Vlietstra suggests that fully adopting the metric system would help to raise standards – and blames the Europhobic media for obstructing progress.
On 21st February 2011, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) published a report “Numeracy Counts” (http://shop.niace.org.uk/media/catalog/product/n/u/numeracy_counts_final_report_feb_2011a.pdf). Their recommendations included:
- [That] the government adopts a new approach to numeracy that focuses on how adults use it in everyday life and that it should be taught as such.
- … that the development of adult numeracy, underpinned by a high-profile, media-led campaign, should be central to social policy.
- … that numeracy provision should be available through a wider range of organisations … and not only education providers to encourage more flexible numeracy learning through bite-sized and informal provision.
- While educators and policy makers speak readily of the skills, attitudes, behaviours of those with the weakest skills and fewest qualifications, they rarely focus on the numeracy competence of those who are other wise well qualified.
One of the arguments voiced by apologists for imperial units is “metric is OK for those who are in science and engineering, but it is too complicated for ordinary people”. This type of argument – albeit that it is utterly perverse – causes a barrier to arise between those who have a high degree of numeracy and those who do not – those with a medium level of numeracy have trouble bridging the gap. Can the “man in the street” benefit from using metric units?
In the late 1930’s the Ordnance Survey introduced grid lines, now known as the OS grid onto their maps. The grid lines were kilometre based as this allowed short measurements, such as street frontages to merge seamlessly into longer measurements such as the length of the High Street and then into yet longer distances between towns and so on. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s British road design was converted into metric units. Road maintenance workers have very little trouble working with such units – most of them are ordinary sorts of blokes (and sometimes girls), yet when they drive home, they have to switch to thinking in miles. The result is that they have to compartmentalise their work and home lives, with one compartment seldom (at any rate as far as numeracy is concerned) reinforcing the other. A coordinated move towards using one system of measure would certainly help those whose numeracy competence is low, but who are otherwise well qualified.
Some years ago I crossed Algeria, travelling from south to north on a commercial trans-Sahara tour. Once we got onto the tarred sections of road (which reached over 1000 km into the desert), I noticed how each little village was signposted down to the nearest tenth of a kilometre. I thought “What a good way to assist people in visualising distances” and moreover, if such signposts were used consistently, people would subconsciously start using them. Of course, such a program would require a wide range of departments to work together. In contrast British signposting on local roads is to the nearest quarter of a mile (almost 0.5 km) and then it is to an indeterminate point in the town or village concerned. To make matters worse, I have noticed that distances are disappearing from many signs on minor roads.
Thousands of Britons are training for the Virgin London Marathon. A visit to the web pages of the marathon shows a poor understanding of numeracy. Along the marathon route, every mile is highlighted with a huge arch, runners have pages of advice on linking their progress with their target times – all given in miles, yet if one goes to the results section, runners can get a report on their progress in kilometre-based splits. These splits are used to enable records for shorter distances such as 10 km, 20 km and so on to be recorded. Unless the runner realises this and consciously plans their run in kilometres, they are unable to make use of this feedback. Very few runners are aware that many “A-Z guides” have the OS metric-based grids, so planning in kilometres does not cause any problems – all that is lacking is a bit of “common sense”. Talk about a lack of joined-up writing!
I could go on – the UKMA booklet “A Very British Mess”, published in 2004, ran to over 60 pages. What then is stopping people from using working with metric units, each to their own level of competence and without any artificial barriers such as the transition between yards and miles? The real problem is the disgraceful way in which many Eurosceptics have seized on metrication as a symbol of the EU, and as a sign of defiance, ridicule it. Parts of the press, realising that keeping the status quo in respect of units of measure is the easy way out, are reluctant to use metric units, while other parts of the press, particularly those that are hostile to the EU, do all they can to gain short term advantages at the expense of long-term benefits to the country.
One of the ways that an adult literacy campaign can work is to encourage the use of the metric system as it removes or at least mitigates some of the barriers that adults with poor numeracy skills face. In so doing however, they have huge task in convincing a metric-hostile press that this is the way forward – there is no sensationalism in boring mundane systems that work.