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.