Maths Memos

Farewell from Steve


Professor Steve Sparks give his reflections on his term as Chair of ACME.

In this post I reflect on my time as Chair of ACME over the last three years. I started in February 2012 at a time of frenetic educational reform. I was initially told that the mathematics community needed to present a cohesive voice on mathematics education policy and this had been one of the main reasons for ACME being set up in 2002. I found, in fact, that the community was supportive and coherent on the majority of issues. Above all, I found a tremendous passion and commitment to improve the quality of mathematics education, exemplified by ACME members and within the wider community.

There was also agreement that as a country we could do much better in mathematics education. As with any subject that matters, there will be passionately held differences of view but there is much more that unites than divides in developing a national consensus on where mathematics education should be going. On a personal note I feel privileged to have met so many knowledgeable and committed people. I also greatly appreciate the high calibre and dedication of the ACME Secretariat who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to produce quality publications and invaluable knowledge of the policy process. I have also had a great number of opportunities to work with those interested in mathematics within and beyond the STEM community.

There is, though, one emergent issue, which needs further thought. In recent years the process of fragmentation of expert advice has accelerated. This shift has been part of an increasingly complex and incoherent landscape. The case for ACME continuing its role as an authoritative source of policy expertise on mathematics education, supported by the major organisations in the mathematics community is indeed even greater.

There is now, in almost all areas of life, a much greater emphasis on demonstrating impact. What has ACME achieved? In the past years ACME had to spend much of its time responding to a myriad of consultations on reforms that affected mathematics education across the entire 3 to 19 age range. ACME is concerned about the pace of reform and issues of co-ordination and has made its views known. However, influence can also be subtle and much of what a body like ACME does is behind the scenes, achieved through dialogue and exposing key people in government and education to evidence and ideas. Part of ACME's work can be persuading government or others not to do things that would have untended consequences. This is typically more difficult if the proposed reform or change has been widely publicised. As one example, ACME consistently argued that the speed of reform of GSCE and A levels was too fast and not coordinated across all subjects. Indeed had the Government's original time table gone forward then about 100,000 young people would have taken the reformed A level after having done the old rather than the expanded new GCSE. Fortunately, eventually, the Government postponed the new A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics until 2017 avoiding this disconnect in mathematics, although other subjects are being reformed to different timetables.

ACME has also worked on several major proactive projects over the last 3 years or so. The highlight is perhaps the post-16 mathematics agenda, where two major ACME reports influenced some key and essential reform. This work also involved dialogue with ministers, opposition parties and other opinion formers. ACME also successfully facilitated the work of an expert group for the Department for Education who produced guidelines for new qualifications. The result is new Core Maths qualifications. If this initiative is successful then in a few years' time many of the 250,000 or so students who obtain a B or C at GCSE will be continuing some maths post-16 and the UK will no longer be an outlier in comparison to other countries.

I have been elected to Council of the Royal Society and will attend Education Committee on behalf of Council. I look forward to continuing to contribute to mathematics and science education. The new Chair of ACME is a colleague in geosciences, Professor Philip England FRS and I am confident ACME will thrive under Philip's leadership.

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