Guest blog – A natural history GCSE? by Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award winning radio, TV and internet producer winning 14 awards over the last 5 years, including a Sony Gold in 2009.  She is also a radio presenter and feature writer for The Tablet.

She now produces Saving Species on Radio 4 which covers a wide range of environmental and wildlife issues.


The recent New Networks for Nature conference (Nov 15th-17th) highlighted the increasing problem of the lack of young people actively engaged with the natural world.  90% of the audience were over 40 and that probably holds true for the many nature meetings that are held all over the country every week. There are certainly exceptions but love of nature seems to be the preserve of older, educated white people. Why?  There has been much hand wringing about this and no one has come up with a good solution.

The National Trust this year launched their Natural Childhood report, written by Stephen Moss.  It is an excellent summary of the problems caused by the disassociation of children from the world around them.  It draws from the book “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv in 2005.  He coined the phrase that has come to define the problem:  “Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”

Study after study supports this.  The range of benefits to children from being active outside and learning about the world around them range from physical and mental health improvements to an increase in a child’s understanding of danger, physical space, imaginative thinking and so on.   Not to mention awe, wonder and delight, which are very difficult to get from computer games.  It may also produce citizens who can make informed choices about their environment, which will be essential for the future.  If we are to make the right – and maybe hard – choices to keep ourselves and the natural world functioning, we will need buy-in from everyone from all ages and from all backgrounds.

The problem is however that the National Trust only really appeals to the same subset of people, namely white, educated middle England.  The photographs in the report show exactly that.  The thorny problem remains – how can young people from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures be inspired to care?

Pondering this over the last year or so I came up with the idea of a GCSE, (soon to be O Level,) in Natural History.  This would specifically concentrate on observing, naming and recording nature.  Children would be taught basic field skills – how to observe a creature in its own habitat, what it eats, how it behaves and how it interacts with its surrounds.  Flowers, trees, grasses, mosses lichens and so on should all be included.  The course would teach how to collect data in such a way that it is a valuable scientific resource.  The changing nature of the natural world through the seasons is vital.  What changes, why and when?  How does it compare to past records?  This is a course designed to produce competent naturalists who know the basics.

The course I believe could also include the history of natural history recording and in the UK.  We have a long, rich tradition and are probably the most studied islands on earth.  The many wonderful naturalists of yesteryear can once again be brought alive and their rich writings explored.  Encouraging youngsters to produce their own nature writings I am sure will produce work that is both surprising and challenging.

As part of the school curriculum a Natural History GCSE can be available to anyone.  City parks and gardens are often as rich as country fields – anyone can do this.  And why not take it further to an A Level?

One academic I discussed it with thought it might be “too soft” for universities to consider for entry.  Maybe – but not everyone wants to go to university and increasingly they wont, so does that matter?  Someone else wondered if children from inner cities would be at a disadvantage?  There are parks, canals and green spaces in most places; even tree-lined streets can be used.  I don’t think this is prohibitive.

For me the benefit is the open access through a recognised structure that can be made available to all.  Who knows who it might inspire – and for some children it might be the only time in their lives they will relate to the natural world in this way.  The biggest problem I see is getting enough teachers who have the necessary skills to teach it.

Is it a good idea?  Do you think it can help bridge this gap and help more young people engage with nature?  There’s one thing for sure, something has to happen and maybe this will one of the ways to build hope for the future.


54 Replies to “Guest blog – A natural history GCSE? by Mary Colwell”

  1. I thought the Government were getting rid of GCSEs and cutting down the number of subjects? Good idea though.

  2. What a marvellous idea! As I have commented before i think apathy is the real enemy of the natural world. One of the primary reasons I think that naturalists and conservationists should support shooting for example is that people who hunt animals are engaged in the natural world and broadly speaking understand their quarry and the habitats where they live. The natural world is less easy to unlock than a computer game but how much more satisfying? There have been many science based blogs here over the last few weeks, this blog to me seems to have hit the most relevant threat to the future of wildlife in the coming years (and gives a step towards the solution).

    A natural history GCSE would be wonderful for my dyslexic son who is a budding naturalist and would love nothing more than being at the top of his class!

  3. An ‘O’ Level in Natural History is a really good idea, but maybe catching interest at a very late stage. Making all schools ‘Forest Schools’, turning some playing field areas into wildflower meadows or field margins (created by the children) and having natural history lessons lessons outside at least once or twice a week would engage children from the very young to teenagers? They would also be playing in a natural environment.

  4. I totally agree with the idea of an o level in natural history (my 13 year old grandson would love this), but as a retired primary and nursery teacher I also agree with previous comment , catch ’em while they are young , I say! By the time children get to secondary school age they are too immersed in the world of IT to start appreciating the natural wonders around them.

  5. A brilliant idea. Endless possibilities – lifelong learning? A way out of educational disadvantage? Rehabilitation of offenders – positive enjoyment as an alternative to crime? (not easy). Using the diary power of social media?

    Schools can themselves contain wonderful habitats. The playing fields of my secondary school – which by a strange coincidence was actually called Forest School – had (has) a small copse, some fantastic gnarled old oaks and a rather lovely ash in one corner. There was also a ‘smoker’s tree’ which was actually a group of young elms, so called because it was where kids who wanted a crafty fag hid from view. Sadly these have now died (of elm disease rather than lung cancer presumably). That aside, the point that “city parks and gardens are often as rich as country fields” is absolutely right. Module to study nature at your school, then go out and locate an area of wildlife value near where you live. How is it different? How is it the same? Who owns and manages it? Write to them and find out (or look at their website). What may threaten it in future? What is it’s status in your local council’s planning policy for the next ten years? Preparing young people for citizenship as well as environmental stewardship… and for teaching us a thing or to as you suggest.

  6. What a great idea! My interest in wildlife stems from a primary school teacher who every Friday for our last lesson of the day talked to us about wildlife. He encouraged us to bring in interesting things that we’d found in the garden or whilst out for a walk. These would then go on the class nature table and we’d talk about them and learn what they were. I wonder how many schools do this now?

  7. My experience with schools often found the ‘bad boy’ in the class was the best at wildlife. Teachers were amazed as they had never tried that subject on him. Much harder for girls though. That’s why this new series of books by Langford press are aimed at just that. A mixture of fact and fiction to stimulate the pupil. The first book may have a bit more fiction but it is there to grab the attention of the child. Birds are not boring if you know how to put it over. Kitty the Toon –
    tells the story of the World’s first inland colony of Kittiwakes at Newcastle/Gateshead. Twelve miles inland in fact and an expanding colony where others are failing. This is a series that will run and run or should I say fly and fly off the shelf!!

  8. Mary, here is a blog I wrote yesterday which essentially outlines how students could carry out a natural history study as a part of their A level coursework I would really appreciate it if you could read this and let me know what you think. I think that there is a danger that an exam for a course like you described would end up as a rote learning test but I also agree that learning ‘call each thing by its right name’ by appreciating it in it’s ‘wild’ habitat must be a good thing.

  9. A really good example of engaging kids with nature in schools is in Steiner/Waldorf education where Botany is a key part of the curriculum in the lower school (primary).

    In fact the entire way in which nature, our place in it, geography and the world around us is introduced and taught is well worth investigating.

  10. Mary, your blog here today really hits a lot personal reasons to me. From tommorow onwards, I reaching 30 can no longer call myself young, but as a “young’ish” birder there are many disadvantages to being a young birder.
    Firstly there are in my mind many positive advantages of the natural world for those who have mental health issues, I only started watching birds after a crash in which I suffered multiple broken body parts including suffering “severe PTSD, with depression and suicidal tenendecies” for which I was admitted to Papworth Trust for an very long stay after my bones and other injuries were healed, it was here I was introduced to nature by a therapist who happen to be a birder, it helped massively whith the issues I suffered, a by product of my accident (short term memory issues and mild dyslexia) again nature and birdwatching in particular helped with that too i.e. remembering species name etc.
    However in my own blog I kind of grumpily looked at the reasons why more people aren’t interested in nature. I take your point about (background), coming from a very dodgy housing estate and looking the way I do, I often find people who resemble yourself (female/male and of a certain age) often walk straight out of a hide as soon as they see me in the doorway, one case the person was in such a haste they left some of their belongings behind!!! One of my friends (asian) gets some of the oddest looks and comments normally the preserve of an EDL member if he walks around on his own. On my blog Mary ( have a read of the post titled “Why proper birders do my head in” and also have a look at the comments left, in particular The Hooded Birder, who works/helps out at Rutland water and his experiences. It may help in future schemes of getting younger people involved in nature.
    You can introduce as many education programmes and schemes but UNLESS you tackle the jurassic attitude of “older” nature lovers younger people will turn their backs on nature, after all I and even younger people can get that sort of attitude from the police on the estate!
    Our estate has a big park adjacent to it (Eastfield Park) and often when I’m walking around it with my camera, older people will say “becareful walking aound here with that, the kids will mug you”, but I’ve never had that, the complete opposite, I often get a crowd a younger people walking with me, “What’s that?”,”Oh look at that” etc so there is definately a “pool” of youngsters who if approached in the right manner/attitude can be turned onto nature.
    I hope you come back to the blog Mary to read some of the comments left and sorry Mark for hijacking again….

  11. Having a natural history qualification that is recognised by academic institutions and employers is a great aim. However, not sure the uptake of a GCSE would be high as it would be a large commitment from the kids’ point of view, sacrificing other subjects. An alternative might be an extra-curricular qualification, along the lines of Duke of Edinburgh Award? There are plenty of conservation NGOs that could help with content and even identify potential tutors within their membership – buy-in from academia and consultancies (who both stand to benefit directly) would be essential, and funding from corporate sources who utilise the latter would certainly help with their PR.

    I’m also in agreement with Rob that a lack of influence of authority figures (teachers, parents) is more likely to influence behaviour and interests than the availability of PlayStation.

  12. I absolutely agree. I for one have lobbied the primary school my daughters attend/ed to devote more time to educating the children on the natural world but I’m afraid it doesn’t get he Head good Sats results!
    Only this morning my 10 year old was telling me that out of her class of over 30 children she is the only one that has an interest in wildlife! My 12 year old can feel embarrassed amongst her peer group because liking the natural world is not “cool,”! I only hope that she will stick to her convictions and take that career in wildlife conservation.
    I believe there is a Sixth form course available -Environmental Science, but perhaps it is too late by hen!

    1. Lorraine, when I was that age I thought the same. Years later I found out that there were several closet naturalists in my class but none were vocal at the time for fear of bullies… Well done to your kids for being open about their interests.

  13. I’m not convinced. It’s a sad trend (at least that I’ve seen) that the up and coming generation (I say that as a 32 year old who adores natural history) no longer recognise or at least identify with the terms Naturalist or Natural History. And what teenager is going to study a GCSE what WILL allow their class mates to say “oh you’re studying the history of Naturism”.

    If the introduction of a new GCSE or A level is needed then at least call it Ecology. Its essentially natural history dressed up in a fancy frock; it’s the same skill set. It would also sit better with universities and potential employers too than GCSE/A level “Natural History”

    But engaging and inspiring the next generation is essential and in my view the biggest problems in this area are:
    a) The lack of recognition and acceptance that nature is not the done thing in the eyes of most their peers. It’s not “cool” and it never will be; no matter how much we adults think it is or should be.
    (b) The (often lame) ideas to engage the younger generation come from the over 40 namely white, educated middle England that Mary describes who think they know what’s best, try to make things “cool” and constantly confuse the concepts of “fun” and “engagement”.
    (c) There are too many “grown ups” in our field that are unwelcoming, patronizing, pretentious and all too often take themselves, and their pursuit, far too seriously. Not all but enough of them to put a lot of people off. Even at my age the patronising looks and comments I get from some when I walk into a hide or am out in the field beggar’s belief.

    Looking through some of the activities offered by a lot of wildlife organisations its no wonder a lot of teenagers are uninspired and uninterested in the natural world. I would have been at their age! Seriously who what’s to make bird cake at the age of 14? Screw that, I wanted to get muddy, learn how to see and study animals properly, and meet people with the same interest (ok, mainly girls). Give them something of substance to do and everyone stop being scared of doing so. I once told a local birder/naturalist type how pleased I was to hear that a friend had been showing a bunch of 10-13 year olds how to find and monitor bird nests. I was nearly lynched. “The last thing we want is to encourage the next generation to become egg collectors. There are such things as nest cameras!” What utter, utter crap.

    We need to engage on an intellectual level, get their brains working, stop talking down to them, stop trying to be “cool” (which is the most uncool thing to do) and let them discover things for themselves, and above all show them that their contribution counts as much as anyone’s. We need to ask THEM what they need and want in order to nuture and encourage their interest. We also have to accept that not all kids will be into nature. If they’re into it, they’re into it. We just need to keep them into it. I also think we need to exhort role models from their own peer group not just from older generations; adults can do lots of stuff because they are adults. A teenager needs to know that they are also capable of activities of substance at the time; I know I did.

  14. Hear hear – I’d teach it!

    But it would need to start as a full time subject much earlier say Yr 3 or 4. And as an O Level/GCSE whatever they get called it should be as valued as any of the other major sciences.
    Thee is already a direct study link with the excellent iSpot which is the modern virtual equivalent of there old fashioned nature table.
    As for not being relevent in inner city areas etc some of those have a more varied flora and fauna than an awful lot of the greencrete I’ve driven past alongside the motorway this morning.

    I despair when I go in to a secondary school and none of the class knows what a blackbird or blue tit is other than something to snigger at. SSomething really does need to be done at an all inclusive national level.
    How can planners make informed decisions, where are the ecologists of the future going to come from and how much do they actually NEED to know – just the big three; newts, bats n badgers? How can a developer understand the planners decision if they don’t have a grounding in natural history – if they did would it help them decide on better (or less bad) locations for their developments, what about the justice system police, courts, magistrates etc when dealing with wildlife crime they need to have some basis of understanding of what is at stake…To my mind it is too important to be left to a few middle aged middle class white people although I know of several great naturalists who don’t fall into that category – it’s just that there’s not enough of them.

  15. This is already happening! Working in partnership with the RSPB I have already developed a course which I am currently delivering (as a pilot scheme) to a group of 14 – 16 year old pupils. The course does exactly what your blog talks about “how to observe a creature in its own habitat, what it eats, how it behaves and how it interacts with its surrounds”. Flowers, trees, mammals, birds, insects are all included. The course also teaches individuals how to collect data in such a way that it is a valuable scientific resource; real field study skills.
    I am so pleased to read this blog as I have been beating this drum for so long and now others are singing the same tune. My partnership with the RSPB is now running well and things are beginning to take off. All the planning and most of the educational resources are in place. I take my group out every week they love it! Please take a look at:

  16. A great idea in principle, but knowing my teenage kids as I do, as soon as you make learning something compulsory there is generally little or no chance of the subject being forced on you becoming a lifelong passion! Maybe its just my kids, but I don’t think I’m wrong.
    I agree with a lot of the comments (especially Rich) about the attitudes of us older nature lovers towards the younger generation. We need to be their inspiration not their barrier. I’ve seen and heard some sarcy comments to youngsters in the hides from the all knowing birders and it makes me mad to the extent I don’t go to one reserve any more myself!
    It’s relatively easy with very young children to start them off on a nature interest – after all the usually develop this quite easily themselves. Teenagers however, need clubs/societies & organisations that treat them like grown ups. Whatever happened to the YOC?? This is a prime example of an adult and academic approach to ornithology – not wildlife club/watch or other dumbed down titles.
    With my kids I took them bug hunting when they were small, showed them stuff, never forced them and now they at least acknowledge the natural world and even more important are quite passionate about environmental issues. A seed has been sown, and I think this is what we need to do more of, in an adult, non patronising way and certainly not making it compulsory.

    1. Hi Gert,
      I was interested to read your comment on the need for a new YOC. I am a young birder (18) and part of a thriving Facebook group of other young birders (13-25) from the UK -and further- who felt that the only organisations available for us are aimed at young people with a passing interest in nature, rather than full-on serious birders. That’s why we’ve set up Next Generation Birders, a small but expanding organisation that hopes to aid the birding experience with the support and shared knowledge of birders their age. To anyone interested, take a look at our blog:

  17. Here’s a first! I’m posting in complete agreement; excellent idea.
    As for the forest schools project: my experience as a voluntary Teaching Assistant at a local primary left a lot to be desired. The only activities seemed to be digging holes, filling them in again, and building camps.

  18. Great – exams in natural history – that’ll take the fun out of it then! Seriously, I see no harm in this but it’s not a solution in itself.

    We need to start at a much younger age. Disconnection from the natural world is a symptom of our changed lifestyles – and it is about adults as much as children.

    Children learn from those around them – and it is a cop out to expect schools to solve this alone.

    Lastly – a GSCE won’t be much use in Scotland. Just saying.

  19. Can I add, as I forgot I remember Chris (RSPB) at Fineshades was taking a group of school kids around the woods, they came into the hide and were generaly disinterested, just a day out of school, it was only a Sparrowhawk soaring through and a Red Kite overhead that got them interested! I think the actual subject matter has to be exciting to them but let’s not forget technology, the few youngsters I see want to photograph, display their images on the internet, I remember showing my cousin, Roy Dennis’ website and the tracking of tagged birds, he was fascinated by that.

  20. I’m not sure what a GSCE is because I live in the U.S., but these type of activities are incorporated into science (earth/biology) classes throughout the school years here in the states. They are also part of STEM activities that each school and/or classrooms can elect to participate in. As a parent, Chair person of the Green Team and Co-chair of the Student Government at my daughter’s Primary school, this is something I would fight for if it wasn’t available.

    1. Crystal – many thanks for transferring your comment from Twitter to this blog! Much appreciated – and welcome! Just for you – the GCSE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education (although it’s changing and now is different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). And school children of around the age of 16 take exams in quite a few subjects to get their GCSEs. So you might do GCSEs in Maths, English, a foreign language, Geography, History, Chemistry etc Many thanks again for taking the trouble to share your USA perspective – much appreciated.

  21. I think Mary is right to be concerned about nature being the preserve of ‘old white people’. As she say’s there’s been a lot of hand -wringing about this. Being outside really is good for you too, and her suggestion of an ecology GCSE is a great idea.

    But I think it is misleading to think there was a golden age, when every kid built dens in the woods, and red backed shrikes hunted corncrakes on every village green. In the mid 70s, I was the only kid I knew with an interest in birdwatching. But my local ‘bog standard’ sixth form college (in 1979!!) did an A Level in environmental science, and I never looked back.

    My time is now split between the Countryside Council for Wales and at Swansea University. CCW has no shortage of talented young staff members, who cope with far greater demands than I did at their age. Swansea University has an enthusiastic conservation and ecology club. My two children, now both teenagers, have a concern for the environment in the widest sense, but no interest in birds: that’s what Dad does. My impression is that environmental awarness amongst the young has never been higher. Natural history, on the othe hand, will always be a niche interest.

    The real block to making the hard decisions Mary rightly draws our attention to is not the young. It’s the older generation, who bombard the media with letters about how climate change is hoax, recycling is just too much bother, and that all this environment stuff is just a passing fad.

    The kids are alright!

  22. I don’t think a Natural History GCSE would work for a number of reasons.

    My interest in the natural world came as a young child and stemmed from my parents, who took me out, helped me identify things and took me to a wildlife club. I would have been interested in taking Natural History GCSE, but I doubt many of my friends aged 14 would have been, particularly as only three or four subjects could be chosen as options. Those that would have taken it would probably have already been interested and it would be ‘preaching to the converted’.

    There is already a good deal of competition for conservation-related jobs, and in many cases experience seems to be as valuable if not more so than academic qualifications.

    As others have pointed out, making something compulsory is a good way to take the fun out of it. I consider myself an all round naturalist, but I still haven’t chosen to identify lichens!

    With regards to the demographic at your meeting, whilst accepting that there is certainly a middle-aged upwards white trend, I can think of a few reasons for this. Whilst at college and Uni I was studying five days a week and working the weekends, so the small number of under 21s should come as no surprise. To get a job in conservation it is often necessary to volunteer as well as working, so free time for younger people can be at a premium (and this isn’t taking into account the time spent birding!) Interests often come from peer groups or parents, hence the majority of people coming from white communities.

    There is some ecology-based work (including the opportunity for field trips) in Geography and Science GCSEs and A-levels, so it may be that trying to get a larger Natural History based module in either of those would be better than pushing for it as a subject in it’s own right.


  23. Some really good points being made here. I agree academic is not the answer, doing and enjoying is the answer, and being led by enthusiastic adults who live in the modern world, embrace modern technology and understand our teenagers. The course I refer to above is competency based and delivered in the outdoors (including outdoor classrooms). The learning and more importantly the engaging, takes place in wild places where young people can develop relationships with nature. I do this every week with some very challenging individuals and trust me they love it!

  24. An interesting blog and a very interesting set of comments.
    I teach at a rural college (biological sciences, animal behaviour and ecology) and every day I’m surrounded by hundreds of young people who are massively engaged and fascinated by the natural world, so perhaps my view is slightly skewed (I don’t know) but I think the pessimism of the original blog is a little unfounded.
    However, I do agree with the many commenters who think that it’s important to catch the children while they are young. Just a few trips to the local park, duckpond or similar will spark interest in nature – but sadly, I think lots of schools are reducing rather than increasing trips out (the old health & safety nightmare). Any kids that have caught the nature bug will be interested in an ecology GCSE or A level, but to be honest I don’t think it will help increase awareness – like others have said, most teens are pretty well clued up already. Its the will to change things and not accept the status quo that will be important, and those that will effect change in the future are not going to be suddenly inspired by having to sit another GCSE (IMO).
    Get the kids outside, that’s the way to do it. Not giving them more exams.

  25. Perhaps it’s November seeping into my bones, but this post is making me feel very old.

    The idea of a Natural History GCSE is appealing and it seems curmudgeonly to oppose it – so I’m glad to see someone else has already done it. I must have a variant of Asberger’s Syndrome – I just can’t get gaga about the natural world. I blame having seen a slime-mould moving across a lawn some years ago. After that – everything else has been ho-hum.

    Nevertheless – I’m an advocate of life-long learning and at 94 years old I have done my best to keep up. I think this is the way to enjoy the many facets of that natural world, look, from the rocks to the sky. But if anyone had told me to do it, or put me in the care of an adult to guide me – doomed to failure. I thank the great sky-pixie that my parents weren’t the slightest bit interested in nature, and the underneath of stones, bark, dark wet places and hedgebottoms were my playground, unbeknownst to them. And, by the age of eight or so, if anyone had spoken to me of “mini-beasts” I would have smacked their heads with a bunch of Observer’s Books.

  26. What a brilliant idea. My two (one at university now, studying conservation) would have loved it. I volunteer for local wildlife trust sometimes, helping with school groups. There seems to be lots for 12 and unders, but very little for the older students. (We also need a Botany GCSE imo, while you’re making Christmas lists).

  27. Great article- thanks! I’ve been saying this for years. Went to uni in late 1970’s and studied env sc with education as I wanted to teach about the env. Never really got the chance. Taught science, biology and geography at schools at the start but missed env so went into that route through the civil service working for The Dept of Agriculture and also dept of Environment. Missed teaching and got part time jobs doing guiding work in nature trusts and conservation. Now back in civil service again in dept of env. Get teaching when out at events and even get to get out and show kids about invertebrates that live in the rivers and how important they are. The only thing is that schools were finding it hard financially to go to outdoor education places- bus costs. Maybe if schools could get money to study nature/ env then it would make it more appealing to them. Anyway if natural history was to be introduced count me in- I’d love to teach it!!

  28. Some primary schools do incorporate the natural world into science and other lessons. My local (private) school has an amazing science teacher who takes the children out to do various activities including pond dipping and nature walks, and has various invertebrates that visit the science lab from time to time. In foundation stage & ks1 they have regular ‘wellie days’ where they go out on walks through the woods and come home with pockets full of leaves and other goodies. My youngest is now in y3, and has announced they are building a bronze age fort on the field & will be outside in some pastoral & PE lessons when the weather allows doing more building. As a result of their all-round education and our outdoor lifestyle, my children are 21st century kids with a love of computer games, but a greater love of outdoors & the natural world. I just wish all schools could adopt this philosophy.

  29. Thanks to everyone who commented, I really appreciate the feedback. It is sad children lose their innate love of the natural world by 12. This idea could work if there were enough enthusiastic teachers I’m sure.

  30. An understandable (if rather naïve dare I say) idea I think and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the blog and the comments. Thanks Mark and Mary.

    Douglas McFarlane’s comment was very thought-provoking (I have bookmarked your excellent blog Douglas (good name by the way!)) and I found myself certainly agreeing with Gert and Rich and others also.

    I suppose I am a middle class, nearly middle-aged, white male (and also studied zoology at university), so I guess I fit the general bill (for someone interested in natural history).

    My wife is a biology teacher at a local secondary school (actually…. these days they’re all called “science teachers” and biology teachers must teach chemistry and physics as well as their biology). I’ll come onto this later…

    Like many of the commentators above, I agree that an NHGCSE is a good idea in principle I guess, but it’s just too late by then and probably wouldn’t have worked for me personally.

    I became interested in natural history pretty-well as soon as I could walk and accompany my father and siblings on dog walks ’round the recreation ground or local fields.

    By the time I went to secondary school (I was the last of the original O levelers), although I still was part of the YOC and often found myself cycling to local gravel pits to watch ringed plovers or sitting in woods to watch badgers, I’d probably say my main interests became girls and sport and it was only after I left university that I properly rekindled my interest in natural history.

    Nature and natural history was quite a lot about rebellion for me I think (and still is). I enjoyed being outside, covered in mud and slightly earthy. I enjoyed honing my senses and identifying things from tracks and sounds. I enjoyed being physical, climbing trees, getting in ponds.
    This was not academia – this was anti-academia – it was fun!

    When I studied zoology at university I was thrust into the stuffy cloisters of academia which virtually doused my passion for natural history.

    My fear about introducing a “NHGCSE” is that this fun and rebellious side to natural history would be erased, even partially.

    I think I’d possibly have taken an “NHGCSE” if the option was there when I was a teenager (or a Natural History O level in my case) but I think it would have dulled my eyes pretty quickly….

    My wife and I are (touch wood etc) lucky enough to be having our first child soon (he’s due today actually), and we have already booked him a provisional nursery place when his mother goes back to work in a year.
    We hunted around and found a local nursery (I guess it’s pretty middle class if you want to pigeon hole it) in which the toddlers are spending as much of their time outside as inside. There’s a HUGE nature area, with a little wood and a field, a wee pond and a huge flower bed. The nursery staff were at great pains to tell us that the toddlers are out in all weathers and love it. I suspect they do!
    I think I’ll be picking up the wee man from the nursery quite a lot and probably spending some time there mesel, looking at the flowers and bugs with him!

    Now we’re (my wife and I) are lucky in that we can (I hope) do all this. We’re middle class (I think) and white and I (at least) am approaching being middle aged. We don’t have much money but we have a little to be able to think about finding a cheapish nursery. (I don’t think we can afford two kids at present though – I’ll need to double my wages in that case).
    I appreciate others are nowhere near as fortunate as us in this respect and couldn’t even begin to contemplate any of this – needs must and all that.

    We managed (finally) to buy our first house a year ago with the largest garden we could afford (I didn’t care much about the house itself) – important to me. We do now therefore have a larger than average garden – it’s full of chickens and wildlife (although the hens to tend to eat the wildlife if not confined) and I fully intend and hope to spend as much time out there with the wee man, showing him the bumblebees and jays.

    Of course, if he’s anything like me, he’ll rebel and become deliberately uninterested in wildlife (just because his Dad is!) so I’ll have to not push him (I guess I’ve got all this to learn as a new parent – guess I’ll just try an do the best I can and clearly try and take a leaf out of Gert’s book of parenting).

    If there is an NHGCSE by the time he’s a teenager, then maybe he’d like to consider it – but I won’t push that either, because I know I’d probably not have enjoyed it – just my opinion.

    As I said earlier, my wife is a biology teacher at a local secondary school and these days (in many schools I hear) our biology specialists (like my wife) are forced to teach “science” rather than “biology” and must indeed teach chemistry and physics.

    This is an awful mistake I think.

    My best teachers were the ones who inspired me the most by being very passionate themselves about their specific subject. Not by teaching other subjects. Nor by trying “to be cool” (which as Rich has said in a comment above, is the most skin-crawlingly nauseating un-cool thing an adult (let alone a teacher) can do) but by making me think their subject was the most fantastic thing in the world. They were clearly passionate about their specific subject and often (obviously) less so about others.
    My best teachers, my most inspirational teachers were actually my physics and history teachers – my biology teacher was indeed a stuffy, dull, boring, droning, hunchbacked-thing who made me yawn long and loudly during each biology lesson.

    Whilst we have specialist teachers teaching generically, we are running the very real risk of teaching our kids with very little specialist passion and therefore not inspiring our kids to take the subject further, be it biology, physics or English literature (it matters not – we need great physicians and biologists and errr…. poets and authors?) So Mary, who will teach this NHGSCE? Because if it’s taught by mathematicians or physicists or chemists, then we are missing a trick (and right now it just might be).

    I’d just like to take this “cool” argument that Rich has brought up (in his comments) a little further. I agree with Rich in the main, but I actually think biology and natural history is “cool” (Rich thinks “it will never be cool” (quote)).

    I think its cool because it is a bit different, its NOT what everyone else is doing, its NOT academic (until you take it further) – it almost sticks two fingers up at algebra and grammar, the repeal of the corn laws, the Central Business District and the Cubists.
    And it’s effortlessly cool (I’ll come onto this in a minute also).

    Its all about life and death and bleeding and mating and crapping and urinating and sweating and flying and swimming and panting and howling and screaming and catching and killing and smelling and displaying and colours and talons and teeth and bristles and wings and slime and warts and spikes and fins and scales and spots and stripes and power and speed and camouflage and stealth and danger and cruelty. (Breathe now).

    Now how cool is all of that?!

    Everything about it childishly screams “cool” to me (but maybe it’s just me… probably is).

    If you’d have sat me in an exam in natural history when I was 16… I’d have probably stuck two fingers up at it.
    I may still be interested in natural history now, but I may well not be.

    There are plenty of people who have commented above (Douglas McFarlane and Gert Corfield being two that spring to mind immediately) who have written about “proper birders” sarcastic or patronising attitudes.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    In fact, I agree to such an extent (always have) that I have stubbornly rejected any notion that I am a “birder” or “birdwatcher” or “naturalist” or any of those monikers. A large majority (yes…. majority) of the people that are happy to be known as “birders” that I’ve met are bores, patronising, dull as dishwater and boy do they take their hobby and kit seriously.
    Incidentally – they’re almost all male also – the female “birder” is much nicer to know in my experience.

    If my wife and I are on a walk round a wood or a lake or over a hill and we see “birders” walking towards us (you can tell at a distance these days I find), we’ll avoid them generally – I’ve got better things to do and see than have my cheap tasco binoculars sneered at (I can’t afford leicas – who can?) and have this 55 year old bore try desperately to impress me with his life list, his “scope” (gawd help me) or avian “knowledge” (did I see the “sprawk”!? sweet baby kerreisting Moses).

    Bird watching is rather like golf I think sometimes.
    I was brought up with an old golf club in my hand (thanks to a Scottish father) and have played a little in my time.
    My sisters would love the game now I think, but not whilst the golf-bores put people off starting to play with their pringle sweaters and die-hard titleist attitudes.
    Same with bird watching as Rich has mentioned above (in his point c).
    It’s like some silly old farts want to keep their hobby to themselves.
    How short-sighted.
    How selfish.
    But you know what….they’re managing to do just that in many cases – and that’s why we need more Doug McFarlanes!

    My mum once said to me when I was at school and trying to work out what path I might like to follow (what job I’d eventually like to do):
    “Why don’t you want to work in conservation”?
    Rather embarrassingly (I guess) I said back to her:
    “I don’t want to because the people who do already, they make my skin crawl”.
    What I meant by that is that they are (were) either so earnest or patronising or dull or a combination of any of those three that I thought I didn’t want to be part of that “club”. And it did seem very much like a club or a clique.
    Still does when you accidentally get talking to the “old guard” sometimes…

    Of course, that’s ridiculous and a massive, sweeping generalization (I now know) and a daft thing to say even back then, but even now I still find the majority of “birders” to be earnest or patronising or just dreadfully dull.

    Twenty odd years later and I actually do work in the environmental sector now after all.
    Maybe I’ve turned into one of my childhood bores!
    But I will still balk and glare (and more sometimes) if someone calls me a “birder” and even when they call themselves a “birder” it makes me produce a little vomit in the back of my throat…
    Do you really need a name for being interested in wildlife and birds in a very amateur and unscientific sense?
    Fill your boots if you like but don’t give me the same label as yourself thanks.

    Rich is quite right (though) when he says people try (and invariably fail) to make natural history cool.
    It doesn’t need that (or at least, I don’t think it should need that).
    It’s effortlessly cool.

    Chris Packham’s nauseating “geek” obsession may be well intended but I think (and I’m by NO means alone) that it’s a terrible mistake (it’s a huge turnoff for school kids thinking of taking biology as a subject of choice – ask most teachers).
    It doesn’t need some pally-pally biology teacher either, getting all “down with the kids” in a misguided attempt to get people “birding”.

    How do we keep the childish curiosity in all things wild after we’ve gone to secondary school then?

    It is difficult eh? I think it might need more than a few hundred (or thousand) enthusiastic teachers Mary.

    What it might need is a huge, wholesale change of mindset in our national psyche. (Easy to do then eh?!)

    Oh I dunno….Instead of paying prima-donna whinging footballers a million pounds a week for kicking a ball around, or city bankers million pound bonuses each year (still) how about giving wardens, rangers, biologists, conservationists, biology teachers and research scientists (both botanists and zoologists) huge wage increases and attract people into natural history that way? Well… I can dream can’t I? That would make it “cool” (or maybe “cooler”)?

    We all want money – and more and more these days we NEED (lots of) money – if only to afford a house of our own, because the previous (often white, now middle-aged or older) generations have bought three each as sodding investments.

    Whilst we pay our biologists a pittance (and we really do you know – ask the coal-face research scientists at places like the Natural History Museum) then most can only dream of actually doing no more than having natural history solely as a hobby (the pastime not the falcon).

    Hobbies don’t pay the bills of course.

    And hobbies are very often the territory of the white middle classes….

    I’m not saying anyone who has a “hobby” is a white middle class, middle-aged man, (that would be a huge sweeping generalisation and indeed very wrong) but I will say that a small but significant majority of people who have what they would describe as a “serious hobby” (including bird watching or wildlife watching) are probably as I described above or at least white, middle-classed and middle-aged (male or female).


    Hobbies need a) time (always) and b) money (often).

    And if you’re not middle class, middle-aged and white (often)…. then chances are you’ll have less disposable money and free time than those who are…

    Just read through my stupidly long comment and I should apologize for waffling on and on in quite a disjointed angry fashion. I meant to be succinct but my fingers just wouldn’t stop typing.
    I’ll stop now and go check on my wife….

    1. Doug Mack D – welcome and thank you for a very interesting comment. No need to say sorry – fascinating remarks and clearly from the heart.

    2. Doug Mack D, what a great comment – I find myself agreeing with every word. One of the reasons that I left secondary school “science” teaching and went into college lecturing was because of the need for secondary teachers to teach “science” (ie all three sciences, biology, chemistry and physics) rather than their own specialism. So many schools now have (for example) biology specialists teaching chemistry, and the passion for the subject just isn’t there. That and the stultifyingly dull, repetitive science syllabus that turns kids off in droves.
      Now I can teach the subject that I love to students that are actually interested in it. It’s a very different experience and I will never return to school teaching.
      (I mean no disrespect to your wife and the thousands of science teachers who are doing a great job in very difficult circumstances).
      Best of luck for the baby!

  31. Hi Mary – what a great idea. My first reaction was surely it should be ecology ? But then I stopped and thought – I really wish I’d been forced to do basic botany alongside my birding. I suspect that’s an embaressment for more professional conservationists than they’d like to admit ! As evidenced by birders spreading into other groups, especially butterflies, as they get older.

    It’s fashionable to heap everything on young people. My experience is that all the stuff about ‘they won’t leave their computers’ is rubbish. Virtually all the fault lies with our generation of adults for the reasons Mary gives – but perhaps most of all the lack of opportunities and artificial barriers we adults erect – not just stranger danger etc but also if its wildlife you’ve got to be quiet and serious. Unlike most people in the field, I’ve worked across the divides between recreation, sport, nature conservation and landscape. For me the first thing is getting not just children but families out in the outdoors – the Forestry Commission got into cycling at the point local authorities were banning it (it was new, quite noisy and fun and white, middle class walkers complained). Its been revolutionary – children don’t like family walks, they love cycling and an FC project in South Wales found Dad’s who’d been the missing link in family activities joining their wife and kids to go cycling. First with play trails, now Go-Ape the thing that really came home – which Mary touches on – was the development of physical skills and confidence in a safe environment: watching children young and old (that’s the 50 year olds competing with their teenagers on Go-Ape!) testing themselves and scaring themselves in a safe environment really brings out the whole issue of personal development that conflicts with the sort of narrow view of education that focusses solely on exams and what is seen as ‘useful’.

    Best of all for me has been where new woods (and nature reserves) have been developed right next to where people live – and that, I think, is the secret. I get very annoyed with ‘the uplands are the green lungs of the nation’ and the elitist attitudes of people in both the conservation and landscape lobbies. Can we survive by breathing for just a couple of weeks a year ? People should be able to breathe that air every single day – an important issue to emerge from the early days of HLF was a very clear split between the great and the good on the HLF board who were more interested in historic houses and the general public who were far more supportive of green space – the HLF’s brilliant project to restore our Victorian parks has been one its most popular ever.

  32. I think with the enthusiam that comes through your comment perhaps if GCSE Nat.Hist is introduced you should apply for one of the teachers positions. The only thing I will pick up on is that the subject if it was taught at school wouldn’t/shouldn’t be purely based in the classroom. I know some subjects are based on (roughly) 50% course work and 50% final exam, it would be better if such a subject like this was say 75% coursework, enabling the students to actually get out into the field,s o to speak.
    Good Luck with the kid, if it is born today we shall share more then just a similar name (hint to any my fellow birders I shall hoepfully see..hint/hint ahem 🙂 )

  33. Fantastic idea GCSE in natural history. I have interpreted natural history to children in many jobs for over 25 years and recent experience has been an increase in interest from children I have led many family groups & been amazed at increase in enthusiasm and knowledge largely down to great tv such as springwatch.What has been troubling me the last few days tho with articles in guardian etc on disaffected youth is the environmental mess we are in now and a lack of formal natural history education is down to our generation when according to these writers we were closer to wildlife! Have we let our children down? Did we take it for granted?

  34. A subject based approach seems a step in the right direction to me, but I also think that the natural world should be represented in all subjects. Wildlife is an ideal platform to teach/learn classical skills from. However, this approach would mean a structural change towards the Seiner model rather than our segmented approach.

    I may drift around the subject now – but I think we also need to address the top. If we are to have our country run by PPE graduates and a large majority of privately educated folks – surely we need to target these institutions to be proactive on environmental factors. The standing of the environment within ethos of our leaders must have been taught, and it would be easier to influence them before they get to power ?

    A change the system from within kind of idea –

  35. Back in the early eighties, when I had to pick my subjects for O-level or CSE, I was not allowed to take biology. “There is only an O Level group, and we don’t feel that this would suit you.” I’d just got 76% in the third year exam, but there we are.

    I’m convinced that my working life would have turned out rather differently I f I had been allowed to take Biology at either O-level or CSE (physics and chemistry were offered at both levels).

    GCSE in natural history? It’s a “yes” from me.

    1. “I was not allowed to take biology ”

      That was also the case for me in the early 60s. However – with the benefit of hindsight this was no great loss. Better to learn the basics of botany, chemistry, maths, physics, zoology first. And statistics, if you have the opportunity. And geology.

      Going straight to natural history is a bit like learning decorative icing before you can bake a cake. IMHO.

  36. Intriguing post Mary. Great idea and I would have loved it but I fear I was very much in the minority. Experiences when young are vital – my Dad was an ex-wildfowler, now avid birder and conservationist, and he and my then gamekeeper brother got me interested in the natural world from the age of 7 when I joined the local YOC.

    However it was a music teacher at secondary school that really got me into ecology and birding and I haven’t looked back since and have worked professionally in research and conservation all my life – he and my biology teacher were responsible for me studying Ecology at uni. Twenty-four years after leaving school I went to see this teacher for the first time since leaving and we had a long discussion about education and what type of people schools are now turning out.

    Even in good secondary schools, students now have a real disconnect with the real world – back in the 80s school encouraged us to get on our bikes and explore the areas surrounding our town (badgers, fungus forays, looking at ancient woodlands etc). At weekends the music teacher used to take 4 of us out birding – this was from a cohort of 20 or so kids. None of this would happen now (child protection / H&S) and I do fear it is too late. The teachers qualifying now are a product of this system and they don’t generally have the skills or interest to teach these subjects. Knowledge and passion about the natural world are key as iterated above and these are not now widely available among newly qualified teachers.

    In my local primary school where my kids go, these kind of natural history activities are ‘bought in’ either through one field trip to a local field studies centre or a specialist environmental educator comes in for a day. Yes literacy and numeracy are important but our primary school kids get little else taught these days and there is a severe lack of depth in the curriculum. Yes, a skilled and knowledgeable teacher can use a theme-led curriculum to incorporate natural history in to just about any subject but these teachers are few and far between and the current government seem to moving away from this approach to teaching and reverting back to subject-based lessons. I fear that Mary’s vision of a NHGCSE is a long way off until a step change is made in the way we encourage our primary school children & their teachers to interact with the natural environment.

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