Guest blog – GCSE in natural history – next step by Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is an award-winning radio, TV and internet producer winning 14 awards over the last 10  years, including a Sony Gold in 2009.  She is also a radio presenter and feature writer for The Tablet.

Mary has written four previous guest blogs here (A Natural History GCSE, 23 November 2012; Shared Planet, 15 January 2015; Curlew Calls, 18 February 2016 and, most recently, Natural History GCSE (2), a couple of weeks ago) and two of her books have been reviewed here too  (JohnMuir, Curlew Moon). Find her on Twitter as @curlewcalls

I experienced déjà vu when visiting Michael Gove last week. The DEFRA offices look just like those at the BBC; open plan, glass and plastic with non-descript colouring – and lots of people wandering around with coffee. Mr Gove’s office is not dissimilar to the Frankie Howerd Room in W1A (which actually does exist). That aside, it was a fascinating and enlightening meeting.

I went with Caroline Lucas and her researcher/assistant Chris Venables. There were other people in the room, namely a policy advisor for DEFRA, people from the 25 Year Plan and Gove’s assistant. Caroline began by introducing the history of the campaign and the establishment of an advisory group, which produced a briefing document that Gove had clearly read. She also expressed our hope that as SoS for the Environment, he would support us.

I then gave a spiel on the urgent need for better nature education, reconnection of young people to the natural world and hands-on practical experience. I also expressed the benefit of studying the rich cultural history of nature, in the arts and media, as well as new technology.  I also explained that, from my perspective, biology will never offer enough space to natural history as they are related subjects but not the same. All of this he knew and nodded in agreement.

Mr Gove was unerringly polite and listened. He said he would offer his support and follow up with the right people, but also told us there was no appetite for any changes to the secondary curriculum within this parliament as the changes already made needed to bed-in. He acknowledged there was a narrowing of subjects at secondary level, which is not necessarily a good thing, and that nature needed to be strengthened right across the school experience, from primary onwards. He acknowledged there was a lack of practical skills.   After promising a letter of support we left his office and went into the Thora Hird Room (not really but looked like it) to carry on the discussion with a senior policy advisor who also worked in the Department of Education. He offered (and since has done so) to put us in touch with the main examining board to get further insights about the mechanism for getting a GCSE and all the other options available. His advice was to get the GCSE first and all else follows – Key Stage 3, possible A Level and teacher training.

In brief, that is where we have got to. We are finalising a date to speak to OCR (the old Oxford and Cambridge Board) and see what they think of the idea. The email exchange has been interesting and positive, certainly as far as an exploratory discussion goes.

I then came back to read a fascinating blog by Miles Richardson, an academic at Derby University. He supported the idea of the GCSE last year when the petition was running. You can read it here. Miles is Head of Psychology and Deputy Head of Life Sciences and his web page is here. He specialises in our connection to nature and runs the Nature Connectedness Research Group. Do read about his work, and especially a blog written in Dec 18 that looks at the evidence for what makes us effective pro-environmental citizens. It’s fascinating and has further links embedded in it.  I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that to produce aware and effective environmental citizens nature education has to start with the emotions (finding meaning, compassion, empathy, beauty in nature) then we can tackle the scientific. In other words, learn to love the natural world and then we will be better equipped to tackle the science and be effective operators in nature. Just learning facts and figures about nature isn’t enough, we are in danger of being simply bean-counters. Nature education has to be connected and emotional as well as scientific to translate into people who know and care about the fate of the world.

Which is why Miles originally supported the GCSE idea as I include the cultural side of nature –  the art, poetry, literature and music – that has been the result of a deep connection to the world. This course won’t be just naming and counting, as it would be if nature simply became a module in biology.

So – we have progressed a little further down what will no doubt be a long and rocky road. But, so far, the wheels are still on the wagon and Caroline Lucas and I are still rollin’ along.

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4 Replies to “Guest blog – GCSE in natural history – next step by Mary Colwell”

  1. Well done - perseverance got the tortoise onto the ark.
    Still think “natural history” is the wrong name and frame for this subject area though. Really needs to be about where we’re going, not where we’ve been.
    Good luck Mary!

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    1. yes, thanks Jamie, that is being debated. At the moment it is a recognisable term, like the Natural History Museum or Natural History Unit. But we will keep thinking and asking opinions. Will make sure it doesn't get forgotten.

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  2. Please do persevere. The lack of natural history knowledge in our society is shocking. I suffer from real imposter syndrome when it comes to natural history. People say how knowledgeable I am, when I only consider myself as a very mediocre naturalist.

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  3. Brilliant article. Please keep up the good work. I go into schools to read my books (which have 'nature' themes) and I'm often saddened how little children know about the natural world. Hopefully, if we call keep working at this, we'll see change in the not too distant future.

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