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.
Mary has written three previous guest blogs here (A Natural History GCSE, 23 November 2012; Shared Planet, 15 January 2015; Curlew Calls, 18 February 2016 ) and two of her books have been reviewed here too (John Muir, Curlew Moon). Find her on Twitter as @curlewcalls
Last week I went to the Economics of Happiness Conference in Bristol (where else would it be held) and sat through some inspiring talks. As the title suggests, this was about creating a new reality where we put the wellbeing and contentedness of society as our collective goal, not simply aspire to increase GDP. There was lots of talk about new ways of doing supply chains, banks and localism and it was no surprise that nature came up a lot. The need for the centrality of nature in economics, food production, the way we design cities and mental health were all highlighted, which was welcome. The conference was inspiring for another reason as I reckon two thirds of the audience were under 40, and half were female. Now that is something you don’t see every day – coming from someone who has organised four national conferences on conservation and each of them was overwhelmingly attended by middle-aged males.
There were also inspiring quotes in abundance but it is too predictable to pepper them through this piece, but one did stand out. It is from the academic and critic Raymond Williams.
“To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”
I truly believe that. Hope, not despair, is the only way we will do what needs to be done to turn around the immense challenges we face. I have tried to do this with the work I have been doing on the conservation of curlews and it is why I am involved in pushing forward a GCSE in Natural History.
I came up with the idea in 2011, and it is explained here. It was well received and many people offered to help. Tony Juniper wrote a piece for the Guardian, but despite his, and Tim Birkhead’s wonderful support I wasn’t sure where to go with it, so it sat on the shelf.
In 2017, I picked the idea up again and launched a governmentonline petition. Mark kindly asked me to write about it and MichaelMcCarthy supported it in the Guardian. Even though it was pulled two months early due to the snap election, it received over 10,000 signatures. The government response, which is triggered by getting that number, was predictable and can be read here. Basically, it said we are doing it already in the biology course, there is no desire to introduce anything else and all is fine. Some other people were against the idea too, namely Chris Baker. He wrote a reply on this blog, which said it would be exclusive and limited in appeal. Far better, he argues, to strengthen the biology curriculum as it is because tha tway more children will be reached. In theory it is a good point, but as biology will never relinquish large chunks of the syllabus to accommodate natural history, it is a non-starter. And anyway, as I keep pointing out, biology isn’t natural history, they are related but not the same. Biology is about how life works, natural history is that life. As with any negative response to an idea that doesn’t suggest a useful way forward and wants to shut down the conversation, it thuds down on the ground like a dead weight. It is best to step over it and move on. Which is what I did, greatly helped by a sudden approach on Twitter from Caroline Lucas MP, who said she was interested and could we talk.
It is so helpful to have someone like Caroline behind this idea. She truly cares, has access to those in power and a large social media following. I was delighted to hear from her. Over the next few weeks we narrowed down what we could do. The first thing was to get a meeting together of people who understand how education works, what is happening at the moment in the various pathways available in schools and how a structured natural history course could fit in. On October 9th we met with the Field Studies Council, the Linnean Society, and an educationalist from Oxford University. This initial, exploratory meeting was interesting and enlightening and is being written up at the moment. We also spoke separately to Natural England and to Amanda Spielman, Head of Ofsted.
To briefly summarise, all this is a bit messy at present, but there are two main areas.
- It seems that the government is certainly concerned about the wellbeing and mental health of young people. There is too much depression, self-harming and angst amongst our children and young adults and it is a tragedy. The government is also well aware of the link between access to nature and increased wellbeing (stated in the 25-year Plan). Therefore, they are keen to put the two together. Initially they want to concentrate on primary schools and £10m has been set aside to enhance outdoor education including creating nature-friendly playgrounds, especially in schools that are struggling, more access to community forests and helping Pupil Referral Units gain access to outdoor learning. Farm visits are to be increased as well. All this is very welcome and much needed, but it isn’t studying natural history.
- In order to form a rigorous, respected, sought after qualification in natural history it has to enter the school exam system. The best way, it seems to me, is to have a short, medium and long-term strategy. The short is to do what the government says it is doing and get more and investment into the primary sector immediately so that children are ready to take on more serious study later. The medium is to start to develop a course that includes nature as its main focus. As this takes a while to get the go-ahead planning has to begin as soon as possible. A GCSE in its own right could be suggested, but this may be too restricting (as Chris Baker suggests). Or, natural history could form the mainstay of a new double science stream which is practical as well as theoretical and encompasses both the cultural aspects of nature as well as the scientific. This would be strong on the hands-on side. Or, develop a Level 2/3 qualification, which might be the easiest route.
People who understand more about education than I do at present might be able to comment on this, but whatever happens, it has to be done alongside the needs and wishes of teachers and their leadership teams, because without their support it is dead in the water. There is an acknowledgment that teachers may need support to teach natural history, and ways have to be found to involve different sectors to help with that.
More widely there is an acknowledgement that as children progress through school there is a ‘narrowing’ which squeezes out subjects that enhance and nurture our lives – like music, drama, languages and, of course, natural history. This constriction is damaging and leads to young people emerging from the education system with silo thinking, which is exactly what is not needed in today’s complex and multifaceted world. More than ever we need the next generation to think out-of-the-box, to join dots, understand connections and deal with a shifting world. Anyone who studies wildlife has to do all those things as a matter of course. The world needs big, wide-ranging thinkers who know the detail and can apply it to a global picture. How else will we deal with climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity and the demands of an expanding human population?
So, there we are, we are progressing this idea and it is slowly taking some shape. It is only the start of a long journey. It would be good to know what people think. To begin with, is ‘Natural History’ the right term? Would Wildlife Science, Natural Science or Environmental Biology be better? Does the history part make it seem old and something of the past, not vibrant and present?
We are scheduled to see Michael Gove next week, so wish us luck. At the moment the path ahead is not particularly clear but it is there. For sure, we will need to work with teachers, universities, industry, biological and environmental societies, the NGOs and educationalists. If we are to put nature back into the heart of education, make the study of wild things a whole-school experience, make it part of the national conversation, as well as produce the leadership for the future, then all of us must contribute. By its very nature, studying natural history is joyful. To see wild things doing what they do and trying to understand this unpredictable, diverse astonishing world of wildlife touches something deep and is truly fulfilling. It produces hope, not despair. To my mind, studying it in school is a no-brainer.[registration_form]
29 Replies to “Guest blog – Natural History GCSE (2) by Mary Colwell”
I cannot see why anyone would not be supportive of the proposal in principle but there are some realities that will need to be dealt with.
My wife is a primary teacher and the only one in the school with a science degree (Environmental Biology no less) but as she is one of only two staff that seemingly can spell and punctuate correctly, she spends her time trying to get English up to standard.
You will probably find more resistance to the idea than you may expect, due entirely to primary teachers already being run ragged trying to deliver the existing curriculum in a challenging environment, where a class has £30 a year for glue-sticks whilst super-heads are on salaries that considerably exceed that of the Prime Minister. If you are in an academy trust then god help you.
To make this work will require a complete change in approach to education at primary level. If someone tells you it can be done with a bit of tweaking here and there, you should be suspicious and probe more deeply.
Well anything that nudges us towards that ultimate goal of that complete change of primary education (because heaven knows our current Edwardian based system is long overdue for it) will be an improvement. If governments refuse to do anything until everything collapses, it is the job of the rest of us to kick away the supports until it does. Plus we might get some decent science and environmental knowledge out of it.
One way forward might be to bring an end to the practise of doing ‘the heart’ and similar topics many times over the years (spiral curriculum) to reinforce knowledge. Instead of losing time to this repetition, do non-medical topics currently squeezed out by a biology curriculum over-represented with medical stuff. Biology needs to be restored from medical science to life science. Natural history is Biology without the numbers and I think that would be a backward step. Number arguments are the heart of good conservation advocacy and a bulwark against damaging/wrong ‘opinion’….think Cod stocks/fisheries in the North Atlantic.
Fabulous ideas and imperative if we are to counteract the current Trump-led collective burying of heads in the sand. As an ex D of E leader in secondary, and one who has taken reluctant low achieving 14 year olds on Outward Bound courses, where their lives were literally turned around by the experiences they had out in the wilds, I have seen first hand the difference reconnection with the great outdoors can make. This needs to happen, and you are going about it so carefully and thoughtfully it really should come to fruition. Thank you.
THe biggest problem this wholly admirable project faces is the massive lack of teachers with even the remotest degree of expertise in natural history. I taught Biology at KS3, 4 and 5 for the last 15 years of my working life, primarily in two Grammar Schools ( boys and girls, later combined in a federation). In all thiat time I was the only science teacher with any ability on field work ( my degree is in environmental biology, my doctorate in Ecology, I had also been warden of two bird observatories and three nature reserves). There was a massive lack of understanding of ecology, and environmental work was better managed by the geography department, but then mostly at a human level. I managed to organise field work for A levels , study days for KS3 and even field work in France for Yr 7 on residential trips, but two schools with combined pupil base of nearly 1200 needs more than one teacher and I was never given any extra time or resources. Most biology teachers come from a background of biochemistry or microbiology and are unable to identify even the 25 commonest plants growing in the school grounds. The expertise is certainly out there, but is not very apparent in the teaching workforce I retired from five years ago. Good luck! Perhaps a look at the old Rural Science curriculum might provide a framework for future planning.
This idea, this thinking must come to fruition for all our sakes. My preferred term would be the Natural World. Obvious maybe, but gets away from fuddy duddy history, biology or any other science, that may be off putting to kids.
That teachers will have to be enthused is a given, we all remember the teachers that taught us well, whatever the subject.
That they have to be experts I’m not so sure. There are plenty of experts and classrooms on reserves throughout the country who would gain by being part of this.
And no, I’m not saying the government should cop out and pass this over to NGOs to do for free, it would have to be paid for.
And the point that is made above, that teachers are pushed to far already? Well maybe some would see the outside classrooms as a break for themselves.
I wish you all the luck with this. We need this on the curriculum ASAP.
I would love to see this happen. I can see why starting at Primary level is a good idea, but there may be creative ways to enable Secondary school pupils to access something until a GCSE is available. For example, as already suggested, through well being programmes, or through drop down days which some schools have in order to fulfil RE – nature study could fit into stewardship topics, among others. Teachers are often looking for inspiration and support with such days.
I do agree a more accessible name would be worth considering.
Just a word of caution. While agreeing with much of what has been said, we should all be very aware that conservationists are not the only group that is keen to grab the interest of young people.
In my local area some schools have found time to include trips out to nearby farms, and I know from personal experience that, at least on some occasions, these have been used to stress the importance of intensive farming, the necessity of heavy pesticide use, the central role of game shooting in wildlife conservation and how wildlife declines have been overstated and have been caused principally by the toleration and even reintroduction of predator species by misguided conservation NGOs.
Fossil fuel companies have provided free ‘school information packs’ about energy sources, junk food purveyors used to supply huge numbers of vending machines to schools and colleges, and the shooting industry has invested heavily in agricultural and rural college courses.
The farming and shooting lobbies are much better funded than the conservation groups and are quite prepared to spend large sums in influencing the attitudes of young people, if given the chance. We must never forget the possibility of unintended consequences!
I agree that there is a lack of Scientists in primary education, however many primary schools run the Eco-Schools programme with Keep Britain Tidy, and many more participate in Forest Schools.
With regards to earlier comments about teachers not being able to identify common plants or other wildlife, this may be true, but many local people, including parents, governors and local community leaders (farm and estate managers, park rangers and Wildlife Trusts etc) are an untapped resource in this area. Many of these individuals would be more than willing to volunteer their time to work with children.
Many rural schools already have a long tradition of working with their natural surrounds, this may well be an area where city children in particular miss out.
Another point is that it really doesn’t take long to learn basic identifications skills and the teacher can learn with the kids. I was a birder for many years but after become less able and willing for various reasons to travel i shifted emphasis to identifying what was around me. First of all higher plants, butterflies, macro-moths and dragonflies. They are relatively easy and fun. Within a year or two i had learnt almost all of the vascular plants where i live. Identifying moths in trap is a nice chunk of learning. Contacting experts for difficult species is all part of the process.
Later i dabbling in difficult stuff like lichens, liverworts, mosses and fungi (which require microscope and chemical tests for many species, which i think i will save for later..) but recently reverted to animal groups that have at least some species which can be identified with photographs: bees, wasps, hoverflies, beetles and bugs. Once you start looking for anything small, whole worlds open up. Of course Natural History isn’t just identification but getting out in the field will be the way to learn about behaviour etc.
Beware birding, it is the gateway.
A more generalised field such as Natural History would have an additional and in my mind an essential benefit. We desperately need more experts who don’t just specialise in one field, for people giving environmental assessment for farming and land management etc.
I am sure there are some, possibly many, already but i have not been impressed by what i have seen of environment surveyors. I know of a small forestry grant that was awarded near me which was granted partly because of a species which wasn’t even present at all in the area (not even in Scotland). Then i met someone from Butterfly Conservation Scotland who i watched doing a survey and saw how it could be done. First of all he knew how to look at a map and in no time at all he had corrected the maps made on previous surveys. He had been a warden for the RSPB so he knew his birds. He knew about many fields and just loved wildlife. I won’t mention him by name but he is top of his field but the knowledge he has isn’t unattainable it just takes passion.
This is a bit of a rant in that it is only based on anecdotal evidence but if a more generalised connected way of looking at nature is not encouraged we won’t have the skilled workers available who can really see a piece of land in its complexity and we need this right now with farming.
I think it will also appeal to many people who are not as hard science capable or not hard science lovers. It opens up a whole field for people who may not fit into other fields. I would have been one of them.
I think I’ve commented on thsi previously, so apologies if I’m repeating myself, and I’ll keep it brief. While I love the principle, I think the practicalities are largely insurmountable. These include competing for resource and space in the curriculum, the lack of qualified teachers (probably the biggest problem), and the likelihood of ‘preaching to the choir’ as with any elective subject. At best, you’d have little niches of succesful uptake, while leaving the masses largely untouched.
I still think the better way forward would be a strong campaign, backed by teacher resources, that instead sought to embed themes of natural history into other subject areas. This would include biology, but also English Literature, Mathematics, Geography, Geology, and others. By producing curriculum-tied resources that encourage teachers to use natural history to explore other existing thematic areas within the curriculum you increase the chances of wider impact.
I think you make a good point David about the risk of the subject appealing to a minority and losing the opportunity for a wider reach. If natural history is taught in a way that makes it a mix of ‘Art’ and ‘Science’, to include environmental philosophy for example, then you wouldn’t exclude those students who don’t have an aptitude for science. Given that there is no shortage of students studying Zoology, Ecology and Environmental subjects at university (at least in relation to the job opportunities available), the existing science curriculum seems to be adequate for university study.
For me, the importance of a nature specific course in schools goes much deeper than preparing children and young adults for work or further education. It’s about helping them care about the natural world, so they can make better choices for nature in every aspect of their lives. Not because of any law but because they understand why it matters and because they want to. Let’s hope Mary and Caroline can persuade Michael Gove!
I used to put a fair bit of effort into getting Swift nest boxes into primary schools. At the start, where one could find an enthusiastic engaged teacher, it was successful. Otherwise it is a waste of time. In one school, we installed cameras in the boxes with a TV screen in the library. The pictures were broadcast on the internet, with quite a following. In fact, for many weeks, it was the only live webcam on the School Birdbox project – all the tits and other things nesting in boxes had long fledged. However the teacher left, the very enthusiastic IT person left, but the caretaker is still enthusiastic. What I had hoped would be a much valued resource for the kids to study nature has gone to waste.
The school now has a status of “Requires improvement”. While I sympathise with the teachers, they run in fear of Ofsted, hitting targets, changing curricula etc. so not surprising they have no bandwidth for anything like this.
A new GCSE in Natural History would be an extremely positive addition in my view and it is pleasing to hear that Caroline Lucas MP is very supportive. It will be interesting to discover what Mr. Gove has to say on this matter.
I would favour the use of the term Natural Science rather than Natural History or Environmental Biology but it may be prudent to wait until a more detailed curriculum is available before making a final selection of the name of the course.
In terms of curriculum, and given that the GCSE would be mainly for 14 to 16 year-olds, it may be better to avoid the more contentious aspects of the wild environment in favour of subjects such as inter alia, flora/fauna identification, life cycles, surveying and recording, simple statistical analysis, trending, basic biological terminology/classification, evolution etc. Supervised practical experience in the field would surely be essential too.
I am quite sure that the teachers would receive wholehearted support from local Wildlife Trusts and their membership in terms of arranging practical experience on reserves and school tutorials etc.
The now acknowledged well-being aspect of such a GCSE course could be promoted as a positive factor when students are selecting their subjects for GCSE.
Perhaps it would be possible to introduce a few pilot schemes around the country where expertise and resources are available to see what the uptake and popularity is like.
I do hope something positive comes from Mary Colwell’s efforts!
Just want to echo the importance and difficulty of finding teachers who are qualified/enthused for the subject. Prime example: not so long ago when I was in grammar school, We were given a module on evolution by one of the biology teachers. She repeatedly told us throughout the course that she didn’t believe in evolution!! Almost to be expected here in Northern Ireland, but it was still unbelievably shocking to me.
She also told me that she found me very challenging because I piped up so much in class to ask awkward questions/correct her. Can only have been a good thing.
“she didn’t believe in evolution”
She didn’t need to – but she did need to do her job and present the module according to the requirements of the curriculum. Several decades ago, when I was in grammer school, our teachers were very qualified and very enthused and in general very grateful that they had missed or avoided being snuffed out in the War so they could pursue their interests and enthusiastically steer us in the same directions. At the end of the Lower Sixth we were given past papers from the Cambridge Board as our end-of-year exams and we found out to our great consternation that their interests caused huge gaps in what we were sposed to know about only a few months later in the mocks and reals. So we stopped taking any notice of our teachers, who didn’t appear to notice, sent away for several years-worth of past papers from Cambridge, and set about rectifying the gaps in our knowledge which we crammed in to make up for lost time. We thought we found a pattern in the Zoology dissection that was frog, dogfish, rat, dogfish, frog, dogfish, rat, dogfish, FROG and the invigilator wondered why we all started sniggering. Such is the effect of Time’s Arrow, we had the gumption to spot this looming ‘A’-level crisis before the History of Our World became different. Taking ‘O’ levels a year earlier we probably wouldn’t have noticed, among the thirteen other subjects we were taking. Only theoretical of course – such was the low regard for it at the time biology wasn’t even an option.
Your idea Mary for Natural History to be included in the National Curriculum as a subject in its own right is an excellent one and I’m so pleased to read that Caroline Lucas is taking it forward with you. As you say, if nature matters to children, it will still be in their minds when they become future leaders. Whatever their vocation, whether urban planning, housing, transport, energy, health, food or clothing production for example, how they view nature will have an impact. We don’t have a shortage of wildlife conservationists to take care of nature on the ground (if only there were more funding and job opportunities) but we do have a shortage of people in politics and business who understand why a healthy natural world is crucial to our survival and flourishing.
With regard to teachers not having the knowledge to teach natural history, there are exciting digital platforms that can help! For example, Norwich-based Developing Experts work with subject and industry experts to create lessons and resources for schools as well as home-based learners.
By investing in nature education for children, the Government could reduce spending on health-related illness linked to people not understanding the impact of their food and lifestyle choices on the natural environment and their own health. More than ever, we need to get back to nature.
I find the number of comments referring to the lack of skilled teachers quite astonishing.
It isn’t a difficult subject so it seems to me that it is the equivalent of saying we don’t have enough teachers who are interested in learning.
I had thought that education was about learning not the learnt.
I can remember the days of supervised “nature walks”, in the old infant and junior schools, with the
table in the corner of the classroom to display treasured finds.
Secondary school saw “Rural science”, though often with a slant towards future employment.
The only time I seem to see the local, rural, combined primary/ middle school walking anywhere is
through the village to their computer suite, though they do have trips out at lambing time,or to the
gardens at the big house, not really nature study though.
The estate has set up quite a good education centre, covering varied subjects, with some input from
the forest schools groups, the local kids also benefit from this, but secondary school age groups are most often seen doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s, maybe not always too interested in their surroundings.
For about ten years, from the early nineties, we ran annual schools days, with anything up to a couple of thousand pupils over two days, arriving on buses from nearby town’s and cities,mainly primary
age, but some secondary, often the latter were just not interested.
As well as an overview of work on the game department, I would talk through the various habitats
on the estate, and aided by my mounted raptor specimens explain different lifestyles and hunting
Many at primary age were quite well informed, and “habitat” seemed the in word at the time.
However, cut backs started to bite, and even with financial support from the estate, it all came to
Very sad really, the days were exhausting, there was much loss of voice and sore throats,but they
we’re very enjoyable.
Here is a more up to date version of why I think this is a bad idea, as a biology teacher of 11 years and Head of Science at a secondary school.
Mary has criticised me for completely rejecting the idea, rather than seeing how it can work. But as a nature lover and science teacher, I think it is fundamentally flawed in too many ways to succeed, certainly if the end game is improving pupil engagement with nature across the board. It would only benefit the most privelaged of pupils in a limited way. And the idea that natural history and biology don’t cross over is ridiculous – just look at any GCSE or A level specification.
Feel free to weigh into my post on suggested additions to KS4 biology syllabi also. One challenge is what to lose to make room for more natural history content, given biology syllabi tend to be crammed full more so even than chemistry and physics. Still, preferable to ‘dropping’ an entire subject to pursue a narrow fourth science.
What about a medicine GCSE? Or a history of the Soviet union GCSE? Too specific, give the G in GCSE stands for general. Save it for A level and university to study such specialised subjects, once you have a better idea about what you are interested in having covered a broad range of topics – including natural history as part of your GCSE Biology.
CB – I think you are right. I think running with applied biology should follow learning to walk with the basics. An essential adjunct, IMHO, with ‘A’ level Zoo & Bot is an element of statistics for biology for insight into what’s what.
I’ve worked with young people aged 14-16 who’ve been excluded from mainstream education, for the last five years. I feel very strongly that these would be the ones that would benefit most from increased access and engagement to nature. I’ve seen firsthand, the benefits that a variety of outdoor learning experiences can bring to disadvantaged groups – from small local-led initiatives, to wider programmes such as eco-schools.
In these alternative settings, it’s also unlikely that any other GCSE’s than English and Maths will be sat – for many reasons. Thus excluding them from many areas of learning and development – a sad reality. However, what works so well in these settings are short, accredited courses and programmes such as ASDAN, Gateway, ABC and NCFE. ASDAN and Gateway are hugely effective for KS3 and have many, flexible units leading to accredited qualifications, such as the Gateway to progression. An example of an ASDAN one can be seen here: https://www.asdan.org.uk/courses/programmes/environmental-short-course
I think that with the issues that would come with actually developing, offering and training in order to run a GCSE course. It would be better to look into the short course approach first – theyre cheaper, easier to develop and they’re more flexible in tasks and teaching approach. This helps to make such learning more accessible to schools and teachers who, perhaps, may not have easy access to outdoor/green spaces.
I’ve looked into this as part of my Bird Therapy writing, as I’m currently developing a teaching resource to go alongside the book when it’s published. I’ll be crossing over wellbeing/MH into mine and this will make it more accessible. The organisations that accredit short courses, although expensive, are keen to explore those links between wellbeing and nature – so well worth a look into.
Start with the question – Why teach anything?
We should be looking to grow skills, understanding, sound decision-making, happiness and health.
The only relevant issue is the need to look at our impact on the world and the future it faces. This subject needs to set its own path. It’s a cross-curricular combination, far beyond the limitations of any current subject area or any label we give it.
More university entrants/professors are not the answer. Greater awareness of the above by the widest section of society is crucial.
Start it from primary, throughout the whole of full-time education. Teachers will catch up – it’s not hard, and they have to frequently do so, due to the micromanagement of politicians. And it will provide the vital framework to get children outdoors.
The only major change worth funding and implementing at this stage is cutting to much smaller class sizes. Expand schools/employ more staff and support children better. Curriculum content is irrelevant whilst staff and schools are so badly stretched.
Delighted to read about the proposals from Mary Colwell and that Caroline Lucas has joined her campaign. I’ve been using Twitter to ask for the simple return to the use of nature tables in all primary classrooms. My many tweets from the past year can be found under the hashtag #ClassroomNatureTables. ( I am Juliet and the Badger. Yes, we do have a regular badger visit us). I am fourth generation of women primary school teachers. My great grandmother, a primary head teacher, was a contemporary of the McMillan sisters, Early Education Pioneers who were well aware of the importance & myriad value of learning outdoors amongst nature. Their ethos is now followed by the Forest School Movement. My granny had a nature table in her classroom, my mother insisted Nature Studies were taught throughout the state school 4yrs to 11 yrs where she was head, all classrooms & the school library had nature tables, nature books, wall charts. When I began teaching, she gave me her teachers guide Nature Studies book. You’ll find photos of it & it’s contents on my Twitter thread. A simple book with a year plan of topics to introduce to the children listed on its content page. Diagrams of how to set up the simple nature table. Ideas for the children to do outside during the holidays. All this before the introduction of the National Curriculum thirty years ago. Not everyone pursued their love of nature as they had when young but they grew up knowing far more than children of more recent years. Robert Macfarlane discovered just how much knowledge was lost,how little time children spent outdoors. In our days, children went outside to collect for the nature table every day. He and Jacki Morris were determined to act when they heard that this plus the fact that key nature words would no longer be included in the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The glorious book The Lost Words was born.
I and the teachers I taught alongside during the 1970s and early 1980s had nature tables, went outside on walks & forays. By the late 80s, I had taken maternity leave, the vast change of the hugely time consuming National Curriculum was thrust upon us. I returned to teaching by doing supply teaching,together with working with Special Needs groups & children struggling to keep pace with the speed we were required to teach at. Nature Studies had all but disappeared. I noticed fewer nature tables. Certainly the start to our day wasn’t full of the excitement of something someone ( often those otherwise shy pupils)had bought in for us all to examine, look at in the reference books, label and proudly display. As the Curriculum was tweaked, honed into even more of a tool for the endless testing, league tables and other horrors that depressed both teacher & pupil & worried many parents, the steady flow of loss continued. Nature, art and craft, music, the end of day class novel read at story time all gone. More pupils came my way.By now, I was a part time Special Needs Coordinator. I also ran counselling sessions and an experimental CircleTime project throughout the school. I had time to see what was happening. So much of it wrong. Children anxious, depressed. Parents stressed. Teachers being worn down. Heads trying valiantly with the all time requirement of Ofsted. I retired. Around the time of the Lost Words being written, I noticed some school nature wallcharts on sale in an antique centre. I bought them,saddened to think why weren’t they on a classroom wall. I also joined Twitter at this time, horrified by the political situation. Our grandson was born. I began to worry about the world he’d grow up in. I looked at the costs of Forest School nursery provision. It would be beyond his parents means. So it began, my campaign to get a simple reintroduction of nature tables into schools, time to be outside. I want for him what I’d had, not the education pressures our daughter had witnessed. I looked at all the political party policies on Education. For me, no brainer. The Green Party had the best not just for Education . So I joined my first ever political party. It has been an eventful year of not just for our family but in the very real sense I get that enough is enough. Nature is suffering, children are suffering. We are not helping the two to connect and we should be. It isn’t difficult. A nature table in your home, in your classroom. If you cannot name what you find outdoors, look it up in a book. Any teacher can do this with no shame, your pupils will see how you learn too. Try it. It really does work. And yes please, make it possible for young people to learn even more about nature, to earn a living through nature. Thank you.
Ps. My apologies for the length of my comment. I care deeply about this! It should also read “Daily Nature, art & Craft,music all but gone.” The teachers who’ve said they feel anxious about their own lack of knowledge shouldn’t be afraid to learn alongside the pupils when it comes to Nature. We are all learning something new every day. So grateful to Mary & to everyone doing their best in their classrooms, schools, homes & to individuals, volunteers & organisations to give children experiences of the wonderful nearby outdoors.
Juliet E – no need to apologise. Welcome!
I would have loved a Natural History GCSE when I was at school. There would have been no teacher that could have dissuaded me from doing it.
I actually don’t think that primary school had any effect at all on my love of wildlife. That actually came from spending most of my younger years outside chasing bugs, watching birds, handling animals and getting to stay up later to watch Wildlife on One and the Living Planet (yes, Sir David, its your fault. I have to admit I was mesmerised by Dr. David Bellamy as well!). Apart from the Countryside Code we didn’t do anything relating to wildlife.
As a side point to this. My son, who is of primary school age has a keen passion for geology. That hasn’t come from school either. That has come from his mum and I noticing he liked picking up stones and looking at them and encouraging him to do so.
I do think primary schools do have a role in encouraging interests like this. Perhaps time could be set aside for guided ‘self-study’. Where a child can sit and read books or articles on the internet and maybe write them up or present their findings to the class.
I did do biology at GCSE level and did quite well in it. However, I did very little on ecology or related subjects which were my main interests.
Perhaps if more of focus was put on to natural history and related subjects at an earlier stage we would be building a future community that is less likely to make the mistakes that our generations have.
Lee – thanks for your first comment here.
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