Schools are not metric

This short article written by Riaz Sobrany in 2007 focuses on school rather than home education but it highlights the blinkered attitudes and lack of awareness of a high proportion of teachers.

Now when exactly did British schools become metric? This seems to be one of the nation's best kept secrets than even senior figures in education can't answer. Is there some obscure Act of Parliament which prohibited the teaching of imperial weights and measurements in schools after a certain date? After performing a thorough investigation into the matter, the answer is no. Neither the UK government nor the EU have put in place any legislation banning the teaching and use of imperial weights and measurements in schools.

Anybody who has had any involvement with state school teachers will be fully aware that a high proportion hate imperial measurements, and dictate that children measure in centimetres despite the fact they are never (well, hardly ever) used as a commercial unit of measurement. A few teachers even go as far as threatening children who describe their height in feet and inches, or mention ounces and pints in cookery lessons with a detention or other nasty punishment!

The metric system was made legal in the UK for trade and commerce in 1896, and the government of the time proposed to make it a compulsory part of the school curriculum. However, this move never materialised and schools continued to teach imperial well into the post war era. Even as recently as 1960, children attending primary schools had to learn strange measurements like roods and bushels, and calculate how many ounces there are in a hundredweight. Very few of these children would have encountered metric measurements anywhere because they were largely confined to science and engineering rather than used in everyday life.

Metrication of schools was phased in gradually from the mid 1960s, originally starting with the O Level science courses before eventually propagating down to the primary school curriculum. The 1970s was certainly the period of change as new textbooks used metric quantities and teachers were advised to teach in metric rather than imperial. By the late 1970s, textbooks and teaching materials in imperial had largely been phased out and teaching in metric was the norm. However, imperial had not gone away fully and it certainly wasn't banned. It survived in a few niches in schools including uniform sizes in inches, and milk in third pint bottles and cartons. In 1988 the National Curriculum was introduced which officially required schools to teach the metric system.

The conclusion is that although metric weights and measures are part of the state school curriculum and have to be taught, teachers are still free to teach imperial as well and children have the right to use imperial measurements at school.

My own experience of things

All of the textbooks and measuring equipment at my primary schools were metric. The teachers only ever taught metric and children were discouraged from using imperial. This was in the early to mid 1980s before the introduction of the National Curriculum, so in theory schools could set their own curriculum and teach what they wanted. Imperial measurements were the norm for everyday life in Britain at the time which resulted in difficulties for primary school children forced to learn weights and measurements that nobody ever seemed to use. Food was sold in ounces and pounds, road distances were (and still are) in miles and yards, petrol pumps measured in gallons and pints, builders used feet and inches, gas bills were calculated from cubic feet and therms, clothing sizes were in inches, carpet and lino was sold in square yards, and floppy disks were 5¼ inches.

Although my primary education was entirely in metric, rather strangely, there were questions involving imperial measurements on my maths GCSE (LEAG board) exam papers in the early 1990s. In the textbook 'A Complete O Level Mathematics by A Greer' that was published in 1976, all units are metric, so imperial must have been abolished on the maths O Level by 1976 and re-introduced into the GCSE curriculum at some later date.

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