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.