Guest blog – Natural History in the national curriculum by Chris Baker


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.


My previous guest blog post was about why I think it would be better, in terms of overall impact and straight-forward application, to bolster natural history content in the biology component of the current national curriculum for science rather than introduce an entirely new GCSE in natural history.

Science GCSE courses are broadly split into two levels – core and extended. The terminology, grade boundaries and grade limits might change slightly but the basic principles remain the same. For Cambridge (the examination board that I am currently teaching at GCSE), students can achieve up to a C if they pursue the core route and an A* for extended. Practical assessment is not differentiated. The expectations for factual recall and application are of course greater for students sitting extended papers compared to core but the topics are the same. A core student, for example, would be expected to describe factors that limit rate of photosynthesis where an extended student can explain this in terms of enzyme activity. I think that there is an argument for an intermediate option where the maximum grade is a B but that’s a matter for another day!

The national curriculum provides the basic blueprint for what a course should contain. Examination boards must build around this to create a syllabus that will get the green light from Ofqual, the UK government’s examination and qualifications regulator. As outlined above, core students will follow a basic path that ticks the curriculum’s boxes without deviating too much; extended courses go into greater detail. This detail could be morphological, behavioural, whether or not the species is invasive, and so on.

Here is the main point that I would like to see included in the national curriculum for England, possibly replacing the current expectation that students can identify species using a dichotomous key:

Identify and describe twenty-two UK species: four mammal; four bird; three reptile; three amphibian; three fungus; three plant; two fish.

I am sure that lots of people would choose different clades to these and I would be interested to read any contributions. I am not suggesting that these are the best choices but you see the basic idea. This gives examination boards the foundations around which to build syllabus content, allowing plenty of room to play with for extended students. Rather than prescribe species, I would leave it open for the awarding bodies to decide which to include but one would expect some cross-over.

These would be my preferred choices:

Mammal: Red fox; Common hedgehog; Red squirrel; Harbour porpoise

Bird: Great tit; House sparrow; Wood pigeon; Sparrowhawk

Reptile: Adder; Common lizard; Slow worm

Amphibian: Common frog; Smooth newt; Common toad

Fish: Three-spined stickleback; Basking shark

Fungi: Wood mushroom; Death Cap; Cauliflower fungus

Plant: Willow tree; Oak tree; Bird’s foot trefoil

Remember that these are just suggestions and the very bare bones of what would then be built upon by the examination boards. Acquiring the ability to name these twenty-two species would give around 700,000 students annually a light introduction into natural history and add to their daily lives whether they choose to pursue it further or not. As mentioned, a more detailed extended/supplement syllabus could include describing three life-history traits for each species for example.

You might think that this is all a bit basic and perfunctory. I ask you to remember that this is a straightforward, easy to implement step towards improving young people’s engagement with nature. People reading this will probably have as strong, if not even stronger, passion for wildlife than I do. We must keep in mind that we can’t impose the full extent of this passion upon every 14-16 year old in an English comprehensive school.

Familiarity with common species is important nonetheless, which is why I think improvements should be made. The national curriculum prescribes guidelines for subject matter that all Key Stage 4 comprehensive and the majority of private school pupils learn, thus the inclusion of identifying UK species would impact the many thousands who couldn’t care less about a sparrow hawk and budding naturalists alike. But most important of all, it gives every pupil following the regular programme of study the opportunity to discover or further nourish an interest in natural history. We would expect some to delight in the extended content, whilst impacting others only insofar as them taking a bit more notice of wildlife in their local park. I would like the UK to produce over half a million young people every year who can say “Hey, look. A sparrowhawk!” once in a while, whilst keeping options for further study wide open for those more interested post-16.

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10 Replies to “Guest blog – Natural History in the national curriculum by Chris Baker”

  1. Like the idea a lot but how would work in a non English setting?. Your particular list wouldn’t work in say Orkney, or the island of Ireland, let alone Singapore or Uganda where UK exams are popular.

    Would greater local flexibility work exam wise?

    1. Thanks for your feedback.

      England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have separate national curricula so could tailor the list accordingly. ROI follows a completely different system.

      By deciding to use a British examination board, the education body in that particular country accepts that the syllabus is designed for UK students. For example using GBP instead of Ugandan shillings in mathematics or learning about Henry VIII as opposed to the Pallava dynasty in 5th century Malaysia in history. That has to be a choice made by those making the decisions in that particular country; it’s not something the U.K. government can be expected to take into consideration when outlining home education programmes.

  2. I’d be tempted to go mainly for species they have a chance of connecting with in the local area – so I think you’ve got the birds spot on but maybe not some of the other groups. Willow Tree could cause a few problems just because there are so many species and some are very hard to separate. I can almost hear the howls of anguish from invertebrate fans so definitely include a few of those – perhaps species that are commonly found in houses/gardens so the kids hopefully get talking to their parents about what they have learnt.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I wouldn’t expect students to distinguish different species of willow at core GCSE level, just tell a willow from an oak tree. Regarding invertebrates – I agree. Definitely scope for a couple of butterfly and bee species. Perhaps as simple as separating honey bees from bumblebees. Perhaps the list could be pushed to twenty-five?

    1. Ha, good question! I’m no fish specialist but I would broadly include lampreys, sharks, mudskippers and lungfish. Perhaps the differences could be explored within an extended specification.

  3. I can’t see the point in this very arbitrary species list, nor how it would improve natural history awareness. As written, it seems geared 100% towards textbook learning and 0% towards anything practical. E.g. there’s no way that more than a tiny minority of children are going to go out and ‘identify’ basking sharks and porpoises in the wild, or even go out to a wood in search of death caps. And even if the species were more realistic, I still don’t think it’s a good approach to take.

    If you want to have children taking an interest in natural history, I think you need to actually engage with the actual organisms e.g. identifying and recording local plants, observing and identifying birds, or going out to visit particular habitats.

    If you focus on aspects such as careful observation, note-taking, use of identification keys/guides and writing up some kind of report, you could potentially also teach a lot of ‘transferrable skills’ of wider relevance than just natural history.

    1. Thank you for your feedback.

      The teaching method is largely down to the teacher delivering the curriculum. No teacher should be regularly teaching out of a textbook.

      I think of the suggested addition as an enrichment point rather than a stand-alone skill. In my role as a classroom teacher I would incorporate the idea into wider outdoor learning such as collecting belt-transect data in different habitats. Practical skills such as those you have outlined are already present in the national curriculum from Key Stage 1-4 and the write-ups are regularly submitted as coursework for GCSE and A-level (or equivalent). I agree that these are transferable skills.

      Regarding the particular organisms to identify, I really am not set on my list. I am not even set on the specificity of the group – Is genus enough for a bee? Should pupils know the Latin name too? Perhaps at A*-B level.

      It bothers me to hear children (and adults alike) refer to a sparrowhawk as an eagle. Although it is very unlikely I could successfully plan a lesson to show a pupil a wild sparrowhawk, they will encounter one eventually. This might be within the week or after the pupil leaves school. The motivation for my idea is lifelong learning. The-long term nature of the task itself is a nice break from the instant gratification so frequently experienced by young learners in 2017.

      The added bonus of knowing about basking sharks or harbour porpoises is that this would hopefully foster a greater concern for the conservation of UK marine habitats across a generation, even if only very slightly. It would link to the science national curriculum points for conservation.

      For more insight into how such points are embedded within outdoor learning, please visit my blog –

  4. Can I direct you to the Scottish SQA unit Classification and ID skills? Includes an assessment on taxonomy which is a bit much, and an ID workbook including sketch, ID distinguishing features and habitat I believe. Level 7 is Scottish Higher so one step up from GCSE but the idea is sound. But why be proscriptive with the list? 20 species reasonably likely to be found in the local area (links to other subjects and local studies) with at least two Each from four different taxonomic groups?

    1. Thanks for your feedback.

      The national curriculum for England has very similar points to those you have outlined. Often these are achieved in coursework but the course I teach covers sketching and dichotomous key use largely in the ‘alternative to practical’ examination paper. The learning for this paper should be almost entirely hands-on.

      The reason for the prescriptive nature of my suggested point is that we would need consistency across England, due to students sitting the same GCSE papers from Cornwall to Carlisle. Local examples might be preferable, but this would be harder to implement.

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