Guest blog – Natural History GCSE – still a bad idea by Chris Baker

Chris is a science teacher of 10 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 for three years has been Head of Science at the British School Bucharest.

The campaign to introduce a GCSE in Natural History has reignited, led by Mary Colwell and now supported by Caroline Lucas MP, Co-Leader of the Green Party.

I wrote a guest blog here when a petition for the introduction of a GCSE in Natural History was launched in 2017, in response to the idea. The petition subsequently received the 10,000 signatures required for a government comment despite being pulled early due to the general election. Who knows, given enough time and public awareness maybe the petition would have attracted the 100,000 signatures needed to be considered for debate in Parliament.

The idea for the Natural History GCSE came from concern that young people in the U.K currently do not engage with nature enough and this is impacting both conservation and wellbeing. I wholly agree with this. What I do not agree with is that the introduction of this GCSE is the answer, or indeed that it would make any kind of positive contribution towards these ends.

Much of the campaign detail is made up of sentiment and mixed ideas about the national curriculum for science and associated syllabi, which Colwell regularly fails to differentiate between. Key stages also get mixed up, this being a campaign for Key Stage 4 specifically, but with Colwell talking about affecting young people and education though the entire school experience. This diffuse writing makes for confusing reading as a science and biology teacher of ten years when trying to pick out the detail so for non-specialist who generally agrees with the sentiment (as I do), I can see why it might look like a good idea.

If we are to put nature back at the heart of education and make the study of wild things a whole-school experience to ultimately make it part of the national conversation, as Colwell states as her aims, an optional GCSE is not the answer. Pupils have to study science at Key Stage 4 to some level, it being a compulsory part of the national curriculum. Most schools offer either Double Award or Triple Science. Double Award gives you two GCSEs, Triple gives you three. Some schools might offer Combined Science as a single GCSE for pupils who really struggle with the subject. If a pupil chooses to pursue Triple Science, they will have to sacrifice another optional GCSE that could otherwise have been studied – History, Business Studies or Computer Science for example.

Pupils usually take ten GCSEs in total over two years between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Mathematics, English and Science are compulsory. If a pupil were to take four sciences, Natural History included, that has a big narrowing effect – no more geography, for instance, post thirteen/fourteen.

Here’s the thing, no matter what Mary Colwell, Caroline Lucas or Tony Juniper says about natural history not being in the national curriculum – It is. There is quite a lot of it in most biology and, to a lesser extent, geography syllabi with a fair bit of cross-over which means that my biology department often shares field trips with geography.

Here is an excerpt from the Key Stage 4 Science National Curriculum for England

  • methods of identifying species and measuring distribution, frequency and abundance of species within a habitat

Here is a snapshot of the AQA syllabus, one of the most commonly used in the U.K.

Here is a 2016 exam question from Cambridge International GCSE Biology (the spec my school uses)

I could fill pages and pages with such examples but look for yourself and you will see there is natural history in all Key Stage 4 biology curricula.

It is insulting to teachers of science, including in primary school class teachers, that the campaign drivers cannot be bothered to look at the national curriculum and associated syllabi or find out what is actually going on in schools by asking teachers. To outline climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity and the demands of an expanding human population on the environment as currently lacking, is simply wrong. This is taught in droves from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4 and into A-level, and rightly so – it is important stuff.  Just ask any science/biology teacher working today.

A far easier to implement and effective strategy would be to improve some of the naturalhistory content at all key stages to include knowing the names of common U.K.species. Currently students need to be able to use a dichotomous key to identify species during an exam. I think there should be a mark available for knowing the bird you are looking at a picture of is a blackbird without using a key! If we embed the recognition of twenty common park and garden species into the national curricula for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland we increase hundreds of thousands of young peoples’ engagement with nature every year. If we create an optional GCSE that a lot of schools will not be able to provide, we can expect to influence fewer than a thousand (if the old Environmental Science GCSE scrapped last year is anything to go by).  I also think at least three prescribed hours should be spent carrying out ecology work in the field at an approved location, not a playground or small local park. Many schools already do this, but not all.

Colwell has said that “biology will never relinquish large chunks of the syllabus to accommodatenatural history, it is a non-starter”. Again, is she talking about national curriculum here? What is the syllabus? There are lots of syllabi and they change every few years. So long as Ofqual (Government qualifications regulator) accepts an updated syllabus as encompassing the sparse national curriculum, it’s good to go. Plus, I don’t think “large chunks” being taken out is needed to have real impact.

By introducing small pieces of natural history to all pupils, we will ignite a lot more interest in total. That said, sometimes natural history and conservation just isn’t a pupil’s thing. They might prefer genetics. That’s up to them. At least they will know what a blackbird is when they see one, if we introduce the easy to implement addition outlined above into the curriculum (then every pupil will have to learn it, not just those following particular syllabi). Let’s not forget that genetics has an important role to play in conservation. Would genetics then be part of Colwell’s proposed Natural History GCSE? No need, Biology already has it covered. Along with the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, field skills such as using a quadrat to estimate vegetation cover, extinction… I could keep going.

Study single biology and your options stay wide open, just as they should do given the G in GCSE stands for General. A GCSE in Financial Mathematics anybody? Of course not. Financial maths is already in the Mathematics GCSE and A level.  So if a pupil wishes to study financial mathematics as a degree, they have the foundation to do so.

There is no Natural History A level by the way, so what will our pupil choose to study for those two years of sixth form before going on to take a degree in natural history? Universities offering Natural History and Natural Sciences BScs want to see a good grade in A level… Biology! Maybe Mary Colwell should contact the University of South Wales and explain her own definitions of natural history and biology (“As I keep pointing out, biology isn’t natural history”).

Colwell has accused me of providing only a negative response that doesn’t offer a useful way forward and wanting to shut down the conversation. Actually, I want to keep the conversation going about how we can improve young people’s engagement with nature. But a GCSE is natural history is not the answer. It’s no more than a folly that has not had any real thought put into it.

I love the Shared Planet BBC programmes and fondly remember devouring the lot once I got my VPN working in China, during the long bus journeys home to the city centrefrom the British International School of Shanghai where I worked in the outskirts. She has won lots of awards and is clearly at the top of her game as a radio producer. Colwell is not however, nor ever has been as far as I am aware, a school teacher. The fact that no secondary school science teachers have been consulted throughout this process of campaigning for a GCSE in natural history just goes to show the reluctance to consider the facts, along with the seeming refusal to actually read some biology (and geography) GCSE syllabi. Colwell and Lucas met with Michael Gove recently to discuss the idea. Maybe he likes it. He has had enough of listening to experts after all.

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26 Replies to “Guest blog – Natural History GCSE – still a bad idea by Chris Baker”

  1. Put your red pen away, sir.

    Biology is not enough. Biology teachers are not enough.

    When will teachers finally see they’re all fighting for their subjects at the expense of a general improvement in general education? (“We want more drama/music/3D printers/science/field trips/pens/tablets” etc etc ad nauseam).

    Ultimately, students need more time to spend on their interests, and in becoming healthy, happy people. Please see Ken Robinson on TED for clarity and sense. And stop squabbling over who gets the best pencils. c.54 million views now. It’s possibly still the most-watched TED talk ever.

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  2. In our local neighbourhood we have over a site of importance for nature conservation which is over 600 acres and two local nature reserves. At best local school groups visit these areas once a year. Local schools should be engaging with these areas on a daily basis, getting children in the field and conducting field studies for all kinds of subjects- biology, geography, chemistry, PE, psychology etc etc. Isn't that the fundamental problem with the education system and nature. There's not enough engagement between local schools and local nature reserves/ green spaces/ outdoors?

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    1. We have a NR nearby, and to my knowledge, local schools rarely, if ever, visit. Only some pupils from a secondary education school adjacent to the reserve use it for some work. But, to be fair, one of the main reasons could be that there is so much dog mess that staff can't risk taking children round!

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  3. A tad patronising towards the end I thought. Everyone seems to agree that more natural history in schools would be a good thing, though not on the best mechanism for achieving it. The different options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Adapt/enhance the current syllabus (sorry if that’s the wrong word) but also have the option of NH as a separate subject for those happy to ditch computing, or another subject.

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    1. Quite the opposite from being patronising, I pay Mary a compliment in the last paragraph describing myself as a fan and her as being at the top of her game. My last sentence is a little smug, and I did consider leaving it out, but it should be read as a bit tongue-in-cheek.

      That said, I take this stuff seriously because Colwell has the ear of the government and evidently has not done her research around current science education. I would not lead a campaign for radio broadcasting reform. Whilst I am interested in radio, I don't know anything regarding the ins and outs of its production and delivery. I would leave that to somebody like Mary, who is an expert.

      I agree with you that both could possibly work, but who would benefit from a natural history GCSE? Interested pupils in schools with the facilities (funding) to offer it to small numbers. Private schools mainly, so nature becomes skewed as a middle/upper class interest rather than something that all, regardless of socioeconomic background, engage with. How will we get enough public interest in the plight of the hen harrier if this is the case in ten years’ time? This is why it is better to bolster NH content in the national curricula for biology. Don't forget also that you can't have too much content cross-over between subjects.

      By the way, no need to apologise - I don't mind if you have mixed up a science syllabus with the science national curriculum. They are closely linked and given you are not talking to MPs directly and trying to convince them to make changes to science education that could affect millions of pupils and in doing so the future of U.K conservation (plus medicine, history, sport, music and so on), it's okay if you're not 100% sure of the difference.

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      1. Chris - With respect I think you are slightly missing the point. I'm not sure you need to be an expert working within education to be involved in this campaign. I could throw the argument back to you and suggest that because you are not an expert in natural history your view should carry less weight. After all, you have used one example question in your blog and it's about carbon dioxide rather than an animal or plant. I do find it hard to judge the merits of tweaking the existing syllabus over an entirely new GCSE but, as I said, no harm in pursuing both avenues. Probably even more important is what kids get up to in the years well before GCSEs - if they don't know what a Blackbird or Primrose or Frog is by the time they are 14 then it's probably too late.

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  4. I don't entirely agree that the current GCSE syllabus has adequate coverage of natural history issues. As an ecologist working in the higher education sector (in a Biology department) it's my view that the representation of ecology in secondary school syllabi - including the A-level syllabus - is far too brief. I actually think this is illustrated by the 2016 exam question above - the question that Chris has picked out to represent ecology in that exam is certainly related to ecology (in that climate change is an important issue for ecologists) but the knowledge required to answer it is essentially meteorology. I agree that adding in an element of species (/taxon) identification for common UK species would be an improvement. But Mary is right to question what would make way to allow greater coverage of ecology - human physiology? Disease? Evolution? These are all equally important and arguably more popular with a majority of students.

    However, on balance I find myself agreeing with Chris on the broader issue. What a GCSE in Natural History might achieve is to allow a few pupils who are already engaged in natural history at age 13/14, and who are lucky enough to attend a school with provision to offer the new subject, better opportunities to delve deeper into the topic. What it would not achieve is engaging the wider base of students with this fascinating branch of biology.

    I think my best answer for how to improve the situation is to revisit the content of the ecology section of the syllabus. Ask any university biology student what they learned in the ecology part of their A-levels and you stand a remarkably high chance of getting the answer, "how to carry out a transect". They rarely show much enthusiasm for this - even though many learned the method in an interesting location whilst on a field trip! I can't think of any other part of biology where we teach the survey methods more memorably than the scientific theory. Focussing more on the diversity and wonder of life, and less on how to survey it, might be rather more inspirational.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts, I do appreciate the feedback from a person working in the higher education sector.

      I do not state that current GCSEs have adequate coverage of natural history issues. My entire point it surrounded in the fact that compulsory natural history content is lacking and in need of bolstering. My article from last year might clarify this point (link in second sentence of article).

      I assure you that pupils do far more than just 'carry out a transect' when learning field skills in biology. If not, that is a failing of the school not the curriculum or syllabus used. I am thinking of the classic teenager dinner table conversation here."What did you do in school today, Timmy?" "Nothing." 🙂

      Biology A-level specifications contain significant, though in need of refining and bolstering (in my opinion, as a nature enthusiast more than a science educator), ecology content. Just take a look at the current Edexcel spec for instance, with more than a quarter of the content dedicated to topics that fall within natural history. A professor of genetics might say some ecology should be lost to make room for better detail on transcription or cancer. Certainly I have heard pupils groan "Urgh, why do I need to know about invasive toads in Australia when I want to be a doctor!" Incidentally I think there is too much drawing from exotic examples when we have enough at home.

      That said, this isn't about the creation of an A level (which I might support), but a GCSE.

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      1. Yes, sorry to have gone off-topic and started talking about A-levels. My point was merely that *even* at A-level there doesn't appear to be much in the ecology provision that inspires students.

        I don't doubt that the syllabus contains more ecology than merely learning how to walk transects. My point is that it currently doesn't appear to inspire students to want to learn more about ecology and natural history. The teaching I currently do (a very modest amount, being fairly early in my career) is entirely to small groups of students who have explicitly chosen to take ecology modules. I only see two types of students in those groups - those who had a passion for natural history outside of the classroom, who often say 'there was so little ecology at school and I'm excited to be learning it now', or those who elected to take a general biology degree and found the ecology modules fascinating in their first year - 'the ecology modules here are so much more interesting that the ones at school'. I don't think I've yet encountered a student who has said they were inspired by the secondary-school biology course content to come to university and learn about ecology. Maybe it's true of some students but they are in the minority. You can say that's a failing of the school, but if so it's a failing of all schools, everywhere - which surely points towards the curriculum.

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    2. Having taught secondary school biology to GCSE and A level for six years I agree that many students have a worrying ignorance of natural history but I am not convinced that anything really needs to make way to accommodate that in the syllabi. GCSE could comfortably be made a bit tougher, if identifying 20 common birds and a few plants could really be said to be making it tougher, but it seems to me that such basic knowledge should be developed before secondary school. If that were done, identifying common species at GCSE would be easy. I have been on A-level ecology field courses where 90% of students could not identify a sycamore tree.

      I also agree that a key flaw in the proposal for a natural history GCSE is that it would be a niche option, educating the relatively few with a pre-existing passion for the subject, and perhaps only those who would have discovered most of what it offered for themselves anyway. Ecological illiteracy threatens our whole society so needs to be addressed better in the core subjects.

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  5. The central issue of the debate is in effect "why do young people know so little about the natural world"? Too much of what is presented here is "these are the (process driven!) opportunities for the incorporation of "natural history" (which in some elements of the bloggers narrative are actually introductory environmental science - a different thing) into school-based learning. It seems to me that Chris is being led by the constraints of the curriculum rather than need. I deal with the end product of the failings of primary and secondary education system in that I teach animal biology and conservation to undergrads and postgrads. I am dismayed by their lack of familiarity with the natural world and its inhabitants - I can honestly say that in the majority of cases I could identify more of the common hedgerow plant species (for example) as a ten year old boy than those studying field based ecology at degree level today. Whilst the GCSE may not be the perfect vehicle (in that it kicks in too late) it would be better than nothing - which is what we have at the moment. And so what if students cannot go on to study it at A level? Again - emphasis on the process of education rather than academic need? If we are to turn around the fortunes of the natural world then the first thing we need to be able to do is to identify the plants and animals living in it. I reiterate - this (the GCSE) might be one of the start points.

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    1. Actually, exactly what I am lobbying for is the learning of common hedgerow plants (for example) as part of the national curriculum so that all young people learn them, not just a lucky and already interested handful. This will benefit pupils if they choose to pursue a natural history-related topic at university, or if they do not in terms of general engagement with nature along with associated well-being.

      As a teacher of undergrads and post grads on animal biology and conservation, you are disappointed with their lack of knowledge. If you were a geneticist or soviet era historian, you might be disappointed with these aspects of knowledge in your students. It is about balance and doing what is best for pupils, getting them from A to B to C. There are thousands of degree courses out there and a school's job is to make as many as possible available to pupils.

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  6. It seems to me that to achieve the widespread reconnection with nature amongst young people that Mary Colwell is looking to achieve (and which we surely all agree is highly desirable), we really need to target much earlier stages of the education system than Key Stage 4. If a GCSE in Natural History is introduced it is virtually inevitable that it will be an optional subject rather than a compulsory one and therefore many young people will simply not take it by dint of having selected other options. As suggested above, those that do select it may well be largely those who are already engaged.
    By making natural history a compulsory part of the curriculum for the duration of primary schooling there would be a chance to engage all youngsters with the wildlife around them and to value it. I am not a teacher so I may be incorrect but it seems to me that at Primary School there is also the opportunity for cross-learning that becomes more difficult as children start to specialise more in the secondary system. Thus while learning about natural history, primary children can at the same time be learning the literacy, numeracy, science and creativity skills that are also vital elements of their education. As a result it may be easier to incorporate (more) natural history into the primary school curriculum than it is at secondary school.

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  7. I just want to say, I agree with Chris entirely; from a professional ecologist's perspective.

    Perhaps the debate should really be focusing on an A-level Natural History (or Ecology?), following on from an enhanced ecological element in GCSE Biology/ Science. This way, students enthused by the ecological element of biology can advance their knowledge and proficiency in this area.

    R.

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  8. "There is no Natural History A level by the way, so what will our pupil choose to study for those two years of sixth form before going on to take a degree in natural history? "

    So you are saying the real problem is there needs to be a Natural history A level (and Scottish Higher) qualification. Yeah, I can get behind that one. We need a Natural History A-Level, I'll sign that petition too.

    Listen, numptypants, not all kids who do a GCSE will go on to A-Levels, or Uni, or anything like that. For many kids their GCSEs are the last qualification they'll get, and even the ones who do go all the way to Uni will take at least one GCSE just for fun. This would allow those kids to still come away with an appreciation of the natural world in and of itself, and we need to be targeting those kids with environmental knowledge too; not just the ones who are going onto Uni. To often the less talented kids get left behind in these conversations, and a qualification like this (even if they got a failing grade in it) would still be a worthwhile thing in kindling that love and basic knowledge (still sadly lacking) of the environment in the wider population.

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    1. I believe that what you are doing here is called straw-manning. The original post comprises around 100 lines of text in which Baker outlines a number of reasons why he thinks a Natural History GCSE is not the answer to the problem that he and Colwell both agree exists. No reasonable reading of what he wrote could lead to the conclusion that he thinks the real problem is the lack of an A level in natural history - indeed if I understand him correctly he suggests that A level biology can satisfy this gap too. So he may or may not be a numptypants as you put it but it is simply not the case that he is considering the needs of only an elite minority of children. Indeed if you actually read what he wrote he suggests embedding the recognition/identification of plant and animal species into the national curriculum could reach hundreds of thousands of pupils than than just the 'less than a thousand' (his estimate which I am not seeking to suggest is the correct figure) that might take a GCSE in nat hist.
      There is an important debate to be had about how we can ensure that more of our children (and ultimately adult population) are more aware of and engaged with wildlife but that debate is not really advanced by slinging insults at people who's arguments you haven't taken the trouble to read through.

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    2. Children in the U.K must now stay in some form of education until they are eighteen, GCSEs are taken at sixteen years old. So GCSEs are not the last qualification they'll get (whether they 'get' the qualification depends upon them passing whatever post-sixteen course they choose of course), unless they spend the next two years on retakes, or taking other GCSEs.

      I agree that we should be impacting pupils who are not necessarily going to university, which is precisely why the compulsory aspect of science education containing natural history should be bolstered - so that it affects every single young person - instead of creating an exclusively available GCSE that will only be available to a limited number of pupils attending schools with large enough budgets and facilities to provide such as course.

      Regards,

      Numptypants

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  9. After a lifetime in teaching/education I agree with your thesis Chris. This is not as simple as shoving a new GCSE inplace, it is a complex. No time to further points now but will come back to it.

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  10. Lets deal with the AQA syllabus. It all sounds good, except I very much doubt most of the science teachers themselves could really do this or understand it. Actually I very much doubt that most ecology graduates at the end of their degrees could really do what this syllabus suggests. I can remember studying ecology at university, and these descriptions of what you would hopefully understand at the end of the module. When in reality most professors of ecology would struggle to articulate this. It looks good, but it's flimflam.

    Many degree level, or post-graduates in relevant fields often have pretty poor field natural history skills after qualifying. I know, I've met enough of them.

    Quite a long time ago, after I'd just led a wildflower walk, because the ranger supposedly taking it never turned up, someone approached me at the end. He explained that he was a science teacher, but that his degree had been in physics. He told me that next week he was due to teach the life cycle of ferns, but was struggling to get his head around it, as he'd never studied any biology. So he asked me to explain it to him in simple terms, which I did. What Chris Baker says sounds fine, until you realise the reality. I doubt there are many teachers in the whole school system who could teach that syllabus, in reality. But what the hell, there's such a poor understanding of natural history, that these teachers can blag it, and no one will notice.

    The few surveys on natural history skills carried out, suggests that most people grossly over-estimate their abilities, and in reality most of the public cannot even recognise common and widespread species.

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  11. Natural History doesn’t have to be about a fact and science based relationship. The science of Nature Connectedness suggests we connect people with nature through senses, emotion, meaning, beauty and compassion, rather than:

    methods of identifying species and measuring distribution, frequency and abundance of species within a habitat

    At a time of a crisis in mental and nature’s health we need a new relationship with nature, rather than more of the relationship that has failed.

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    1. Miles - I also think that natural history does not have to be all about facts and science based relationships. But how will a pupil be assessed on the level to which they have connected compassionately with nature? I share your ideas on the beauty and complexity of our relationship with nature but it does not point towards the creation of a formal school qualification that pupils will receive an overall grade in upon completion.

      Given there is a mental health crisis and nature can be part of the solution (so can drama, PE, music - other optional GCSEs that a pupil will have to drop to pursue NH), is it a good solution to create a GCSE that few pupils will have access to except those attending schools with the budgets to accommodate such a specialist subject (private schools, mainly)? Or would it be better to ensure that all pupils, regardless of socioeconomic background/post code access nature regularly and in a meaningful way through the national curriculum (that all pupils have to follow, which means impacting every single child in the U.K).

      I support the sentiments that lead to Mary's idea and what she wants to achieve, I just don't agree with that creating an optional GCSE in natural history is how best to achieve these aims.

      I would appreciate a response to these points from you, as a key supporter of the campaign.

      Chris

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  12. The reason I included a carbon dioxide/greenhouse gas question is because it is highlighted as lacking in current science education by the Green Party/Caroline Lucas side of the campaign (which is not true, as you can see), and so needed in a natural history GCSE. Thus it is the campaigners, not me, who are confusing environmental science with natural history if anybody is, though climate change and natural history are linked.

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  13. Is the answer an optional GCSE that few pupils will be able to access except those in schools with the funding and facilities to offer it? Or is the answer to improve the national curriculum so that hundreds of thousands of pupils are impacted every year? Are we aiming this at pupils in lucky post codes (who opt to study NH, at the expense of drama or music - also good for mental health and wellbeing) or all including those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds?

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  14. Saw the Ken Robinson talk you refer to a long time ago. I am a fan. He makes some great points for entire education reform (and is a top Scouser) but I don't think he would support a GCSE in natural history, which is what this particular debate is about. He advocates a broad curriculum, which is what the current biology GCSE offers although there is room for improvement. A natural history GCSE would be narrowing - precisely the opposite of what Robinson is about. He's also does not like standardised testing and a GCSE in natural history would be exactly that - the standardised testing of natural history knowledge and application.

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