Chris is a science teacher of nine years and a former country park ranger. He began his teaching career in London before taking up posts at British schools in Vietnam and China. He is a Biology specialist and currently Head of Science at the British School Bucharest.
An online petition calling for the UK government to develop a Natural History GCSE has gained 6,098 signatures at time of writing. 10,000 is the minimum required to qualify for a government response and 100,000 means the topic will be considered for parliamentary debate. The petition has circulated around Twitter, achieving 42 re-tweets as well as garnering support from notable nature author Tony Juniper and Tim Birkhead FRS, professor of behaviour and evolution at the University of Sheffield.
It’s an interesting idea and one that has good intentions. But I do not think it is good idea. For selfish reasons I would love to teach natural history as a subject on its own. The joy! But to how many students? Would it benefit them? And would it positively affect the effort to conserve the curlew – the campaign (and a worthy cause I might add) that seems to have led to the creation of this petition?
The second sentence of the petition reads ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife’. I take issue with the word ‘need’ here. I believe that young people can benefit greatly from learning these skills but they do not need them. They need to perform arithmetic so they can check energy bills, read competently and problem solve. Speaking as a science specialist, I would also argue that young people, in a time when internet memes and click-bait links are regarded by some as a valid sources of information on issues as serious as health and disease, need the ability to distinguish good science from pseudoscience. But they don’t need to know how wildlife is recorded. To some children, learning how to do so would be irrelevant and a waste of time. We can’t let our own passions and interests dictate what children must know.
The petition does not specify whether natural history should be a compulsory subject. Students already have to take at least one science GCSE course; all of which contain biology content. So, I presume Mary Colwell (creator of the petition) thinks it should be an optional science. Most schools offer up to three sciences at GCSE – Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Deciding whether to ‘drop’ a subject (I’ve always discouraged this word as a it sounds a bit arrogant and casual) is a big choice to make aged 13 or 14, due to most schools limiting pupils to around five options.
Choosing to study Biology as a single GCSE as part of the ‘triple science’ route allow students to build more broadly on the skills outlined by Colwell, already learned to an appropriate level throughout Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. All three GCSE Biology syllabi I have taught (Edexcel, Cambridge, AQA) have contained significant ecology content, including practical field skills, identification of major clades, food webs, causes of extinction, constructing and using dichotomous keys, and data analysis. One might argue that these topics, strictly speaking, do not constitute natural history. However, these are some of the very skills outlined in the petition’s description. Not to mention ecology, conservation and natural history being interdisciplinary, with huge content cross-over. This begs the question – Would some of these topics get taken out of the Biology curriculum and relocated into Natural History?
Colwell gives only the briefest description of what a GCSE in Natural History would entail, in that same second sentence – Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. Here is an excerpt from the Biology Natural Curriculum for England:
- methods of identifying species and measuring distribution, frequency and abundance of species within a habitat
We can see from the above that her request is already present in the very bare bones of what a student is expected to learn at Key Stage 4 (In England, at least. I’m less familiar with other UK curricula but I am confident they have a similar, if not identical, point). The rest of the petition’s brief is more of an emotional appeal about the importance of nature to our national culture and heritage along with concern about how children are becoming increasingly disconnected from it. Whilst I sympathise with this viewpoint as an individual who loves and worries about nature, creating a GCSE in Natural History is not the answer.
The petition description could also fall into Environmental Science, another subject which contains principles of natural history. This is a subject I have taught at GCSE before and it was never popular, usually used to fill a timetable slot when a pupil had sat a science GCSE a year early. Students will sit AQA’s Environmental Science GCSE examinations in England for the final time this summer, with no possibility of re-sit. This is due to Ofqual, the government examinations regulator, deciding the content overlapped too much with other science curricula.
Rather than create an entirely new Natural History GCSE I think it would be far wiser to bolster biology content in current science GCSEs to include the identification some common British species without the use of a key. Science being compulsory, students have to choose between Core Science, Double Science or Triple Science; for each of which the examination boards’ syllabi must correspond to the science national curriculum. A change to the national curriculum impacts every single student following the regular GCSE path, unlike optional subject content. To put this into some perspective, nearly 700,000 students sat a compulsory Science GCSE that included biology as per the national curriculum in 2012; 941 were awarded an Environmental Science GCSE.
The creation of a Natural History GCSE would not, perhaps sadly, prove popular with schools, pupils or parents. It would attract students who are already interested in nature and, I fear, have the potential turn their wonderment into stress thus having exactly the opposite effect that this petition aims to achieve – Namely greater engagement with and caring for species within the natural world. The fact is that pupils and teachers are under pressure to get good grades so rather than softly igniting interest in a young mind, we might actually extinguish it.
If a Natural History GCSE were taught well, the student enjoyed the course, achieved a good pass grade and subsequently wished to pursue the subject into post-16 education, what then? There is no Natural History A-level or International Baccalaureate so they would have to choose Biology as the most suitable option. This means they will have gaps in their knowledge, even if the student takes as many related modules as possible there is still core content on human biology etc. at Key Stage 5. Consequently, he or she would have a lot of catching up to do. A good A-level Biology pass, along with acceptable grades in other subjects studied, would get our student onto a natural history-related degree course. My worry is that we will have impeded, rather than aided, the student’s chances of getting onto their preferred course by allowing them to skip so much preparatory content at GCSE.
What a student thinks they would like to study at university aged 13 or 14 is likely to change over the intervening years and teachers need to make sure their horizons stay broad. Perhaps our Combined/Double/Triple GCSE Biology student will go on pursue a Virology B.Sc and end up working on a new vaccine for squirrel pox or avian flu. Or they might become interested in statistics – eventually becoming a financial analyst for an investment firm, their interest in natural history falling by the wayside save for a monthly direct debit to the WWF and an occasional visit to the Natural History Museum. Biology keeps options wide open, whereas a GCSE in Natural History would narrow options too far at too young an age.
Lastly, who would teach natural history as a stand-alone GCSE subject? Answer – Biology teachers, because they have the background to do so.
National Curriculum in England for Science: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study