Action For A Sustainable Future

Prof Vicky Pope, Chair of MEI (Mathematics Education Innovation) and Editor in Chief of Climate Resilience and Sustainability, reflects on creating a sustainable future.

Improving the wellbeing and life chances of this generation and future generations is central to the current drive to ‘Build Back Better’. The June SWBC conference in partnership with the British Youth Council will cover 2 themes central to this – namely “Transforming Education” and “Protecting the Environment”.

One of the benefits of a portfolio career is that I have the opportunity to work with some great organisations in sectors that I care about. My interest in the environment is evident below and from my long career in the Met Office – first as a climate scientist and more recently working with and encouraging others to use climate and weather science to make informed decisions. I also work with a couple of education charities that aim to widen participation in STEM subjects at school and university.

Sustainability; Protecting and enhancing the environment for multiple benefits

2021 is a big year for international conferences, and the UK is playing a big role in them. The G7 summit in June in Cornwall, the COP 26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November, and just as important, but less close to home, the Beijing Conference on Biodiversity in October.  Pressure on World leaders to cooperate will be as high as it has ever been, with health, humanitarian and environmental crises crippling economies and dominating headlines across the globe.

One of the challenges of creating a sustainable future is ensuring that decisions are made based on sound evidence. It was for this reason that I was keen to take the lead in developing a new climate journal for the Royal Meteorological Society, Climate Resilience and Sustainability (CRS). We designed the CRS journal to focus effort on solving practical problems, and in particular to support scaled-up action. CRS aims to publish papers using research and/or practice across multiple disciplines to enhance resilient and sustainability outcomes in communities, countries and regions. CRS is online only and open access, reflecting our goal to make the papers available to everyone. It will also provide plain language summaries to widen access. It is only by bringing people together with different backgrounds and expertise that we can address the challenges of tomorrow, and indeed today. The journal will feed into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and through this into important negotiations of the UN, such as Cop 26. The emphasis on sustainability and climate resilience in CRS also supports the Millennium Development Goals, which have evolved into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A little closer to home, I am also a trustee of the Devon Wildlife Trust. The Wildlife Trusts do excellent work to demonstrate the benefits of conservation on the ground and are becoming increasingly active in lobbying government, particularly through their central arm. There are huge opportunities for change with various government initiatives, including the Environment Bill working its way through Parliament. There are of course competing pressures, but it is important that the central provisions are not lost. The UK Parliament website states that ‘the Environment Bill will make provision about targets, plans and policies for improving the natural environment; for statements and reports about environmental protection; for the Office for Environmental Protection; about waste and resource efficiency; about air quality; for the recall of products that fail to meet environmental standards; about water; about nature and biodiversity; for conservation covenants; about the regulation of chemicals; and for connected purposes’. Environmental NGOs welcome these aims, but will of course continue to point out where they are diluted.

There have been many ambitious targets and statements over the years and the new announcements globally and closer to home are undoubtedly a step forward and are more than welcome.  But targets and grand statements are only helpful if there are laws, policies and plans to back them up.  From Rio in 1992 to Paris in 2015, a quick look at the past record of nations’ delivery compared with rhetoric gives little cause for celebration.  The dangers of history repeating itself are all too clear in the UK’s commitments.  We’ve made good progress on renewable energy for sure.  But competing pressures are leading to £billion spent on new roads, scrapping the Green Homes Grant, proposing new coal mines in Cumbria.  Something is not adding up.

Improving our natural environment (not just preserving it as it is) by restoring natural systems and increasing the area of land enhanced for diverse wildlife has multiple benefits. For example, Devon has led the way on the reintroduction of beavers, and they have been shown to improve flood management, as well as providing unexpected benefits such as improving tourism. We welcome the fact that the government has highlighted the importance of peat bogs, not least because they hold more carbon than any other habitat, and play a crucial role in storing and purifying water. However, the targets for restoration are still much too low (35,000 ha or 5% of the UK’s peat bogs). On a recent trip to the local garden centre, I struggled to find many bags of compost that were not peat based.  The limited number of high-quality natural environments also need to be enhanced and made much more resilient as the pressures of climate change add to the other multiple pressures they already face.

If we see the Environment Bill and Cop26 as first steps, then there are still opportunities to do more to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and to create a sustainable future for our grandchildren. It is worth reflecting that over half of the CO2 emissions have been produced since the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1990 when global leaders first committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Transforming Education; The role of maths education

Confidence in maths skills has the ability to transform lives. Whether it is the epidemiologist advising on the risks of Covid or the climate scientist advising on the risks of climate change, maths alongside other disciplines is central to the science and complex computer modelling that underpins that advice. However, it is not enough for just the scientists to understand the maths (and sometimes even scientists misunderstand the relevant maths). A population with poor numeracy skills will not be able to grasp basic but important concepts that could help them to make sound decisions. When I first saw the exponential growth charts for Covid back in February 2020 I immediately wondered why no one was doing anything to limit the spread of Covid – waiting even a week has a huge impact. Then I realised that many people do not understand exponential growth. Poor numeracy skills also lead to many disadvantages for individuals, such as poor access to employment and poor personal financial planning.

MEI had its roots in improving A-level Maths. Over the years it has become a leader in CPD for maths teachers and broadened its focus to widen access to post-16 Maths education. At one end of the spectrum, MEI has demonstrably improved access to Further Maths A-Level by supporting teachers and working with a number of universities in transitioning students from A level to university courses – both of which enable able students from all backgrounds to study maths at the top universities. At the other end of the spectrum they have worked with partners to set up a national network of regional Maths Hubs to support teachers from Primary and Secondary school, for the benefit of all pupils and students. This work has been particularly effective in supporting primary school teachers (who often have little or no specialist knowledge of maths and how to teach it). Children’s chances of success are maximised if they develop deep and lasting understanding of mathematical procedures and concepts. The Teaching for Mastery programme promoted through the Maths Hubs provides planning and assessment resources, exemplified through case studies and supported by collaborative working with schools already involved in the programme.

Students need a range of options to develop confidence and enjoyment of maths as well as the skills they will need in the future, MEI is at the forefront of innovation in maths education. Two examples may be of particular interest to readers of this newsletter.

Core Maths is a post 16 qualification developed by MEI and is key to increasing mathematical literacy across our society. Support for it has become part of the programme that government funds MEI to deliver to maths teachers in England. Like any new qualification it is taking time for schools to adopt it, but numbers are growing steadily. Core Maths qualifications (the first exams took place in 2016) are designed specifically to enable students to develop the quantitative skills they need to use maths and statistics with confidence in real-life contexts. These skills are crucial to support other subjects students are studying, especially the social sciences, economics, and business and finance-related disciplines. They will also be hugely valuable for students’ future studies, whether academic or vocational and for use in the workplace. The quantitative skills students learn in Core Maths will also enhance their understanding the world more generally. For example, as well as being the key to understanding loans and investments, the maths of exponential growth explains the rapid spread of pandemics. MEI recommends that all students with GCSE Maths grade 4 or better, who do not plan to take AS or A level Mathematics, take Core Maths.

Data science has revolutionised how we understand the world and interact with one another. Over recent years there has been huge growth in the collection and availability of data, and in the use of data analysis across all aspects of business, engineering and science. Education must evolve to ensure young people are ready to take part in an increasingly data-driven world. MEI has recently completed a pilot project to test out new ideas for a data science course for post-16 students, to be studied alongside or as part of A-Levels. Learning about Data Science also has the capacity to motivate students’ interest in maths. The Royal Society is leading a project on ‘Jobs are changing, so should education’. They will be thinking about how to broaden and adapt our education system both to meet the needs of a technological economy and to improve the wellbeing and civic participation of all members of our society. MEI’s development work is helping to lead the way in developing education to address these goals.

Transforming Access to STEM Careers

In2scienceUK is a charity working in the South West with a mission to promote social mobility and diversity in science, technology, engineering and maths. The organisation, which has just won the Queen’s Award, achieves this by leveraging the passion of employers in the STEM sector, and their employees to empower young people (17-year-olds) from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their potential through life changing opportunities including summer work placements, workshops and skills days. This high-impact proven programme supports these young people to develop not only insights into STEM careers and research but also boosts their skills and confidence, essential for success in the workplace. In2scienceUK works with a range of mission aligned organisations passionate about promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace including Cancer Research UK, DeepMind and Abcam. We would love more of you to get involved or support our mission. Please contact Dr Rebecca McKelvey to find out more.