A new Natural History GCSE for the UK by Mary Colwell

The new qualification is the result of a ten-year campaign by conservationist and author Mary Colwell. Here is the article she wrote for the summer 2021 issue of BQ Magazine, arguing passionately for the need to train a new generation of naturalists.

By Mary Colwell

Sometimes, when ideas are voiced out loud, they seem so obvious you wonder why they weren’t taken up years ago. The notion of a GCSE in Natural History came to me like a flash back in 2011 when sitting in a meeting with Tony Juniper, who is now Chair of Natural England. It was like one of those thunderbolts or a lightbulb coming on above someone’s head you see in comic books. “If we are so disconnected from nature, why don’t we teach it in school as a GCSE?” I just said it and there it was, out in the open for all the world to see - the start of a long, frustrating and ongoing journey. Put simply, Natural History is the study of wildlife – the plants, birds, fungi, insects, mammals, reptiles and amphibians that inhabit Britain. It is not biology, which is the study of the systems and process that support life. David Schmidley, puts it succinctly, “A naturalist is the person who is inexhaustibly fascinated by biological diversity and who does not view organisms merely as models, or vehicles for theory, but rather as the thing itself that excites our admiration and our desire for knowledge, understanding, and preservation.”

Tony Juniper thought it was a great idea and wrote an article in the Guardian. “It would help towards rebuilding our collective awareness that we are not the only species on Earth and that our well-being is not isolated from the health of all the millions of others.” There was a flurry of excitement and a great deal of enthusiasm, but I didn’t know how to build on it and push it along. I asked a range of conservation friends but they thought that establishing a GCSE was a pipe dream. The idea slipped down my agenda.

It wasn’t until 2017 that I revived it and launched a government petition, which quickly got 10,000 signatures. The signs were looking good but Teresa May called a snap election and all petitions were halted. 10,000 signatures was enough, though, to get a government response, which was as encouraging as a rainy bank holiday. It said they were doing enough, it was all covered, they had no plans for new GCSEs and to forget it. Another article, this time by Michael McCarthy, appeared in the Independent which was very supportive and again there was a ripple of excitement, but it had hit the buffers once more. Then, in 2018, an angel appeared in the form of Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton. She loved the idea and offered to help. Over the next few months things picked up. We went to see Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for the Environment, who was very encouraging. Through him we met Tim Oates from OCR, the exam board that sits within Cambridge University Press and Assessment and together we began to develop what a Natural History GCSE would look like.

Months of lobbying, talking, writing, discussing and galvanising support means that as of 2021, a GCSE proposal sits on the desks of both the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, and the Minister of State for Schools, Robin Walker. It also sat on the same desks when their predecessors were in charge. It has hit yet another hiatus, a featureless, formless void where there seems to be no movement and no communication. It is beyond maddening.

All this is set against the trauma of the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow, which ended with little concrete action, and a growing fear about the future of life on earth. Of course, a GCSE in Natural History won’t solve the huge problems we face, but it is a step towards informing the next generation about the world they live in and what it needs to thrive. Unless we know what lives with us and how to protect it, we will make the wrong decisions at a time when there is little time left to get it right. If environmental education was working, as the government response to my petition suggested that it was, then why are these statistics so awful?

In August 2019, research was carried out for the family activity app, Hoop, on how much young people know about nature. Three quarters of the 1,000 children between the ages of 5-15 who answered a questionnaire couldn’t name a robin or a badger, less than half could identify a stinging nettle, 80% didn’t know a bumblebee and 90% couldn’t name a beech leaf or a cabbage white butterfly.

This lack of familiarity with nature was reflected in the 2007 edition of the Oxford University Press “Junior” dictionary, aimed at children of seven years or older. Words like, “moss,” and “blackberry” were removed, considered redundant for that age group, and their place was taken by ones considered more useful, like “blog,” “chatroom,” and “database.” In 2012, “cauliflower” and “clover” disappeared and “broadband” and “cut and paste” were deemed more common and helpful for the modern child. Robert Macfarlane, in his book Lost Words, wrote, “Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed—fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker—gone!”

Lack of engagement with the natural world is a tragedy for the children themselves as they miss out not only on the fascination and wonder of wildlife but also on the richness and inspiration that comes from a personal knowledge of life on earth. It also alerts us to a gap in education. At a meeting with the Field Studies Council (FSC) recently I found it alarming that it is possible to go through school, taking biology at GCSE and A Level, and barely take a step out of doors. There is lab work and lots of theory, but the hands-on, sensorial aspect of nature is almost entirely missing. The FSC runs practical, outdoor classes for biology, geography and ecology students, and reports a steady decrease in the number of learner-hours spent doing outside science. For some young people, the short biology A-level field course (about three days), is the only opportunity they are offered to study outside throughout their whole formal science education, from 5-18 years. We are training the next generation to be students of the digital, virtual world rather than practitioners in the real one.

To be a natural historian requires the skills of identification, monitoring and data collection. Naturalists understand habitats and ecology, the routes of migration and recognise invasive species. They are competent at working outside and have to make sense of the messy data that is the product of a real, changing world rather than a controlled, indoor one. They get to know their locality intimately and then interpret what they see in a global context. In addition, and crucial to this qualification, students will also study the relationship between nature and culture – the natural world as a wellspring of creativity in art, literature and music. The natural world has inspired great works for countless generations, from cave paintings onwards. There will be both science and emotional connectivity with nature, which is a powerful combination.

Research at the University of Derby has shown that an emotional connection to nature is essential to create effective eco-citizens. Their work explores new ways for us to connect with the living world which will translate into a long-term commitment to live well on the planet. “This new relationship with nature can move beyond utility and control, beyond knowledge and identification. A new closer, healthier and more sustainable relationship with nature comes through noticing, feeling, beauty, celebration and care.”

In addition, as there is a proven connection between being in nature and benefits to mental health, studying the natural world could help address the serious problems of youth depression and anxiety. As author of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, wrote, "Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature." ⁠

A GCSE in Natural History (and then ‘A’ Level and degrees, I hope) will help increase environmental awareness at a time of growing concern about the future of the earth. As climate change takes hold and wildlife decreases, with many species on the brink of extinction, we have tough decisions to make about the future. We must train committed, knowledgeable and practical naturalists who can fight for a planet under pressure – providing an authoritative voice for the voiceless. This is not just a moral obligation; it is a practical one too. We all depend on a thriving earth to provide us with fresh food, clean water, unpolluted air and the material essentials for life. Without the eye of the naturalist monitoring and recording the living world, precious wildlife and the ecosystems that support it might slip away unnoticed. The comings and goings of nature are vital indicators of what is happening to the earth and we must watch, record, monitor and protect the natural world with skill. Let’s hope the government has the courage to take this step and establish this qualification as soon as possible, the earth is crying out for people who know and care.