Metrication

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1971.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Humphrey Atkins.]

12.11 a.m.

Photo of Mr Marcus Fox Mr Marcus Fox , Shipley

Despite a General Election and a debate on 27th October, there is still complete mystification in the country on the subject of metrication. The Minister for Housing and Construction, in winding up the debate, said that there would be a White Paper before any legislation. We are still waiting for it, but what concerns us is the irrevocable steps which are being taken in the interim.

The date of 1975 is being bandied about. In The Times of 15th March we read that the Director of the Metrication Board said that Britain is already a third of the way in the switch-over to metrication and that Britain is due to be all metric by 1975. I do not blame this gentleman, who is simply carrying out terms of reference of the Board when it was set up in 1969, which were: to facilitate the transition from the use of the existing systems of weights and measures in the United Kingdom to the metric system, on the assumption that the end of 1975 should be the target operative date for all provisional programmes. Someone in authority should say that that assumption is incorrect.

There is a hidden momentum to metrication, and not just in education, because of this assumption. It is time that the Government took issue with the Board on this. They are at variance, and the rift is obvious to any informed outsider. It is no surprise, in view of that, that the general public are confused.

Nowhere is this confusion more disturbing than in education. Uncertainty in any sphere is regrettable, but in education it is more disturbing than anywhere else. When my right hon. Friend said in answer to a Parliamentary Question that the teaching of Imperial measurement would go ahead with metric teaching, we accepted it, but when we find what is happening in practice we have the right to be concerned. I do not blame head teachers or suggest changing the system whereby they are responsible for the internal administration of their schools, or say that decisions about the school curriculum should be taken away from them.

I am concerned about the advice which is coming from some quarters at teach-ins and on B.B.C. programmes. A programme for schools which is broadcast on Mondays and Thursdays at 9.45 a.m. is called "The Penny Programme", and one which I heard was concerned with metrication. It was a comedy act, with a stooge who was giving the impression that we were foolish to continue with the Imperial system and that, if we had any sense, we would go metric as soon as possible. Again the magic date of 1975 featured in the discussion. This is not the way that this should come about.

I come to the crux of the matter, because what gives me most concern is the situation in examinations. We find that examination papers are being presented completely in metric units at the moment. It does not need a genius to realise that obviously all teaching is geared towards examinations and, if examination papers are in metric units, how far we have gone in the teaching in our schools.

I can tell hon. Members that, in O and A levels, S.I. units will be used exclusively between 1972 and 1973. In the case of the certificate of secondary education, it will be a year later. However, I can give many instances where papers in metric units are to be set a good deal earlier. In physics in the G.C.E. 0 and A levels in London, for example, the date is 1972. Wales is two years ahead, because there the physics papers were set in metric in 1970. In the case of 0 and A levels in science and maths in Hampshire, the year is 1972. In the C.S.E. examinations in my own county of Yorkshire, the technical drawing and physics with chemistry papers were set in metric units in 1970, and the same will apply in 1971 to the maths papers.

I am concerned about this preparation and about the switch-over which has occurred already without the knowledge of Parliament and certainly without the knowledge of the general public that many children in our primary schools already are being taught solely in metric units. Working on the date of 1975, which is what many people in education are doing, obviously any child in our primary schools from the session 1968–69 has needed to be taught nothing else but metric since, by the time that they leave secondary school, Imperial units will be in the past.

No wonder there is a lack of interest in teaching the old system. What is more, surprisingly enough, this has the blessing of the Metrication Board. In its publication "Metrication and the Schools", it tells us: The education system is going to have a very important part to play not only directly in teaching the metric system at all levels but also indirectly in enlisting the younger generation, who are definitely on our side, to push our elders into thinking metric. It is unacceptable to many of us that metrication should be brought about in this way. It is completely wrong that children should be taught one system and then for educationists to say that it is the best system and is their reason for going metric.

I claimed just now that the process has gone further than many of us, until now, have thought. In support of that statement, let me refer to sales of books. Many authorities have already issued headmasters and head teachers with instructions that they must not buy any new books in old units. Any new books purchased must be fully metricated. To my knowledge, one firm has sold a million copies of a new metric decimal primary maths series. That is only one set of books sold by one firm last year, and so far this year its sales are up to that. The Chief Inspector of the Inner London Education Authority in the financial year 1969–70 issued an instruction that no mathematics books would be purchased that were not metric as well as decimal. In other words, there is a complete embargo on purchasing any books with Imperial measurements in them.

I sympathise with the publishers, who have to plan ahead for two years; I appreciate that they have worldwide markets but that they need a home market, too. But this issue is far too important for a decision to be taken solely on lines such as those. I am concerned about the fact that those in authority in education appear to be seeking to force this upon us in this way. They know too little of the world at large. They take a decision looking at their own field—and that is an end to it. But I say—and I am sure that many hon. Members will agree with me—that we want our children at this time to learn two systems. We see nothing wrong in that. If it is a choice, I say, "Let us have that in preference to inflicting full metrication upon the country". If industry can go metric voluntarily, it is not asking a great deal to ask that that should also apply to education.

I wish to leave time for other contributors to the debate, and I will conclude by telling my hon. Friend that I hope that in his reply he will give some proof that the Government accept that we must have a firm line on this matter and that a change of Government can bring about a change of attitude. I am not asking that the Under-Secretary of State should reverse anything that has happened previously or should stop metrication, but I am asking him to remove that date 1975, mythical as it is, as a fixed date for complete metrication in our schools. I hope that he agrees that we ought to slow down this change-over to examination papers which are completely metric.

May I have an assurance from him that for the foreseeable future we shall see that both Imperial and metric units are in general use and that our children are familiar with both. If he does, I am certain that he will earn the gratitude of many people who feel that there is a great danger that, through stealth, they will awaken one morning and find that they are living in a metric Britain—a Britain which has gone metric before any decision on the matter has been taken in this House.

12.23 a.m.

Photo of Mr Ken Lomas Mr Ken Lomas , Huddersfield West

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) for raising this issue. Incidentally, he was a worthy opponent to me in 1966, and I very much welcome him to the House. I endorse much of what he said tonight.

We should have from the Government of the day, whichever Government it is, a clear undertaking about where we stand on the subject of metrication, certainly in relation to education. In January, in a Parliamentary Question, I asked when we could expect the White Paper, and I was told, "Soon". I am still awaiting it. It is three or four months later. The issue of metrication in education and everything else was raised in the House on 8th July by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page). The Parliamentary Secretary to the then Ministry of Technology replied that the Government were looking into it. We have gone through a period of gestation and after nine months the time approaches when at least we should have another White Paper or a decision on the issue.

On 27th October, 1970, in a very impressive maiden speech, the hon. Member for Gravesend (Mr. Roger White) again raised the question. It was then stated by the Minister for Industry that the target date was 1975.

I agree with the hon. Member for Shipley that that needs to be looked at. We should see whether we need to go metric; and if we are going metric, there should be some explanation why. The effect on the educational structure, on schools, industry and commerce could be far-reaching.

Is it still a fact that we want to go metric? I am told by teachers in my constituency that thousands of pounds have been spent on the dual system that is now in operation in education. We should be given a clear undertaking where we are going.

I want to be patriotic. To my way of thinking the mile, the fathom, the furlong, the pole and the perch are things that we treasure, and I see no reason to throw them away just to go metric. I hope that the Minister will give a clear indication whether the Government intend to introduce this legislation, and when we can expect a White Paper telling us what he considers the effect will be on our educational structure.

12.26 a.m.

Photo of Mr Roger White Mr Roger White , Gravesend

I join the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox) in obtaining this debate, and for choosing this debate. He referred to the debate on 27th October last, when I told the House that I thought that it might be a case of metrication overcoming the nation by stealth rather than by agreement. Since then my fears have been extended, certainly in education. Indeed, the Kent County Council, in October, 1969, issued a booklet to teachers in which it said, on the first page, that the Government should indicate the end of 1975 as the guideline date for the adoption of the metric system for the country as a whole. This was followed by the Royal Society, on 29th March, 1968, which pointed out that The Confederation of British Industry has recommended the SI system of units should become dominant in schools by 1971. This was followed by the South-East Regional Examinations Board in a publication which said: We are going metric in 1972 and later, under the heading, "Metrication": All questions involving measurement shall be expressed only in metric units, in the 1972 examinations and thereafter. In relevant questions only SI notation will be used. I therefore submit that metrication is overcoming this country by stealth.

I join the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West in referring to the Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) at the conclusion of the debate on metrication on 27th October, when he asked the Minister: Is my right hon. Friend saying that he will produce a White Paper before any legislation is introduced? If so, it would have been helpful if he had said that much earlier. My right hon. Friend replied: One is entitled to keep the best cherry in the basket till the end."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th October, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 167.] I submit that the cherry is already in the basket.

This underlines something that was said a long time ago, namely, "Give me a child to the age of 7 and I will have him for the rest of my life."

12.29 a.m.

Photo of Mr William Van Straubenzee Mr William Van Straubenzee , Wokingham

I hope that the House will forgive me if I have to be a little brisk. I have only about 10 minutes to try to answer some of the major points about which many people feel strongly. I remember that I was told by one of my relations that Charles Dickens at Gadshill always had two large dogs at the entrance to the house, tied up with long string, so that they could fall upon visitors as they arrived. If one knew how to do it one could find a narrow way through because neither dog coming from either side could reach to the centre.

On the subject of metrication that is how I feel. On the one hand, there are the snarling and savage pro-metrication dogs who think that the Department of Education is dragging its feet and, on the other, the well-mannered and well bred dogs who are behind me. I must make it quite clear that I am here only to answer the education side of the question, and my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) cannot fairly expect me to pontificate on the Government's policy in the matter generally. I am not the correct person to answer on that.

The essential problem is that in various centres of industry the Government have encouraged the voluntary move over to metrication, and this is the present Government's policy, and they have allowed each sector to set its own pace. We all know that different sectors have a different pace. We all know that they have reached a different stage; and that some have not wished to move in this way at all. That is the background against which the education service has to provide an appropriate instruction to our young people. It is perfectly true that the change over in some places is taking much longer than it is in others, and there is certainly no commitment on the part of the Government, as we meet tonight, to the date of 1975 or, as far as I understand it, any other date.

I hope that what I say will help my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Fox), who made an admirable speech. The general position is that, as a result of the background which I have very briefly explained, the metric and Imperial measures not only exist side by side but will continue to do so for some considerable time to come whatever decision this House may come to. The fact is that even if the House decides that at a particular date the country will go metric—and I do not conclude one way or the other—if that were the case instruction in the imperial measures would still be necessary even after that, because large numbers of textbooks, and so on, will refer back at any rate for an appreciable time to the former Imperial measures.

It is perfectly true that the co-existence of the two systems of measurement is inconvenient and it is untidy, but I say respectfully to my hon. Friend that this is not confusing. It is not something for which the education service is responsible. This is the situation against which that service has to work.

What I am seeking to say is that it is, or should be, the practice of the education service to reflect what is happening, or what has happened, in society in general and the world at large. We are not a channel, or should not be a channel, and I gladly take the opportunity to make it clear that we do not regard ourselves as being a channel for the propagation of a vested or other similar interest. On the other hand, we do not, I hope, by our instruction wilfully resist change.

I must remind the House that just as metric weights and measures have always been used in some industries, if on a very restricted scale, compared with the widespread use of the Imperial system so, too, the metric system has already long been taught in education establishments—again, of course, very much as a second string to the Imperial system. With the increasing use of the metric system over the past few years, the balance of teaching has been changing, and this is understandably a reflection of the facts of the situation today.

The education service is fully aware of the conflicting views which exist on this subject, but only half of which have been heard tonight. However, I can assure the House that we are under great pressure in the opposite direction. We wish to take a middle course in this matter, and I repeat that until the White Paper is laid before the House—and I do not and cannot answer for that—we must tonight take the situation as it is now. I must make it clear that to the education system, metrication is merely a curriculum question. As I said we are not a system of propaganda and we are not resisting change. Thus, for us it is a curriculum question.

Some people seem to think that the Department can in some way either bring about or forestall, according to one's view, a change to metric teaching by some decree. This is not and never has been the position of the Department. The responsibility for providing education in the public sector rests with the local education authorities, and control of the curriculum is vested in them by law, except in voluntary aided schools, where the governors have control. In practice, there is a high degree of devolution through the heads of education establishments, and all these factors apply to other subjects just as much as they apply to metrication, as must be the case with any subject or system which forms part of the curriculum.

I was asked about advice which is being given to schools. Advice on the timing and implementation of metrication in schools and colleges comes from various sources such as the Schools Council and the Metrication Board—the latter is, as has been pointed out, a propaganda instrument—from the announcements of various examination boards; from specialist advisers, including Her Majesty's Inspectors; and from news and information bulletins.

The point I am trying to make in the short time available to me is that none of this advice is mandatory on the teacher, although it is of great help to her or him in deciding how best to prepare the young people in her or his charge, but subject to the direction of supervisors and the policies of the local education authority about the provision of textbooks and equipment.

I come to the advice which has been given to education authorities and establishments on the question of changing to metric teaching, and their response to it. On the former, the Department offered direct advice to all the education and other interests concerned as far back as the beginning of 1968. As a result, the changes in syllabuses and examinations are being effected in our technical colleges with what can fairly be described as a remarkable lack of confusion, and I therefore do not accept that there is any confusion in this respect.

It is true that there have had to be special arrangements made by seven examining bodies concerned with keeping colleges informed on metrication generally and its effect on syllabuses and examinations. This has all worked very effectively, and my inquiries in the col- lege sector show that it has made the task of all concerned with the courses much easier than it might otherwise have been.

I will briefly, because little time remains, summarise the effect of all this. The changes taking place in further education courses and examinations are made in close step with the corresponding changes in industry.

That brings me back to the point with which I began, that we are not as a service an initiating service or a propaganda service. But it must be our duty to prepare our young people for the world in which they actually live, and not—I repeat—be the subject of a propaganda operation.

If I may say so, I have had very much to trancate a somewhat complicated argument, but I hope that at least the assurance which I was able to give of the continuation of the two systems at least until this House has made a decision may have gone some way to allay the anxieties which, I know, my hon. Friend feels.

Photo of Mr John Page Mr John Page , Harrow West

My hon. Friend talked about assurances, but, far as I know, he did not give any. As far as I know, all examinations are now in metric. If all examinations are in metric, all teaching will be in metric. If it be a fact that there is no confusion, this is so because it is all going metric now. It is most surprising that this should be done, considering the undertaking given by my right hon. Friend—

The Question having been proposed after Twelve o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.