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 five previous guest blogs here (A Natural History GCSE, 23 November 2012; Shared Planet, 15 January 2015; Curlew Calls, 18 February 2016, Natural History GCSE (2), and GCSE in natural history (3) – next step, 8 November 2018, and two of her books have been reviewed here too (John Muir, Curlew Moon). Find her on Twitter as @curlewcalls
Was it really only 18 months ago that I wrote the last blog for Mark on the proposed GCSE in Natural History? It seems so much longer ago than that – another era. But then it has been a pretty remarkable time. October 2018 was the date of my blog, and it was also the month that XR was launched. The climate crisis was hitting the headlines as awareness was raised by beautiful young people, grannies and grandads very politely causing havoc through peaceful rebellion. They created human road blocks, shut down city-centres and were very nice to the police. I was asked to speak at the XR event in London but before I could get there the stage was dismantled.
Throughout 2019, XR was proved to have a point as the earth experienced record heatwaves, fires, droughts and storms. As the evidence mounted so did the fear of what might happen in the future. October 2018 also saw the Living Planet report by WWF, with its gut-wrenching statistics that wildlife worldwide has declined by 60% in 50 years. Even the big 5 in Africa, as well as the commonplace swifts and swallows were declining at an unprecedented rate. By the end of 2019, the State of Nature report delivered more grim stats on UK biodiversity, cementing our reputation as one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth.
As if all this wasn’t enough, by January 2020 we faced another crisis – and this one stopped the whole world in its tracks. We are still in a holding pattern, wondering where on earth this will lead. A virus that should have stayed in an ecosystem in Asia was transferred to people through a Chinese wildlife market. To date not far off 6 million people have Corona virus and well over 350,000 have died across the world. An eventful 18 months doesn’t do it justice.
Meanwhile, the plans for a GCSE in Natural History were plodding on in the background with talks, meetings, discussions and writing documents. As events unfolded and it seemed we were making progress, I had a growing feeling that this might just be an idea whose time has come.
Caroline Lucas and I went to see Michael Gove in. November 2018, who was then Secretary of State for he Environment (I was impressed by my book being on his desk and Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words on his coffee table!) He was helpful and had actually read what we had sent him. He was very concerned about the mental health crisis in young people and understood the connection between nature and well-being. He put us onto Tim Oates, the director of research and development for Cambridge Assessment, which embraces the exam board OCR. Tim is outdoorsy, likes wildlife and was keen from day one. We were off.
From then on it was the hard graft of producing the required Aims, Assessment Model and Criteria for the GCSE and then persuading a whole host of civil servants, ministers and educationists that this could work – and indeed is very much needed. Most of the time it was pushing on an open door. Once we had explained that natural history is not biology, that there is a gap in the curriculum, that it is a subject that brings together so many skills – as well as gets young people outside – it was not a difficult sell. And so here we are. Next week we launch the final lap – the consultation phase – to ask the wider community for their ideas and contributions to make it as robust as possible, but also to ensure it is an inspiration and a joy to study. If all goes well and this final stage is successful, a GCSE in Natural History will be in schools for September 2022.
Teachers will have access to training and the Natural History Museum, Field Studies Council and many others will help with teaching resources.
When I first came up with the idea back in 2011, the world was a very different place. Our broken relationship with nature is now painfully laid bare. We may have a better view of the planet as a whole than at any other time in human history, but we are far more disconnected from the workings of the day to day life around. A recent survey showed that children don’t know the names of even the most common birds, flowers, trees and mammals. Our connection to and our understanding of the natural world is at an all-time low. If we don’t have future naturalists to name, record and monitor nature, if we don’t have decision makers who understand how wildlife connects us to the wider world, if we allow the source of so much inspiration and creativity to fall away, then the future is bleak. That is what this GCSE will start to address.
I know a GCSE in Natural History is not a silver bullet, of course it isn’t. I know it will have teething problems and difficulties – of course it will. I know there will be detractors and nay-sayers – and we will try to allay fears. But at least it is an attempt to make something happen everywhere. The children in the council flats by my house will have as much access to knowledge about nature as the public-school children in the leafy suburbs. Access to an understanding of nature should not depend on postcode or family salary.
I would like to see a pathway from primary to higher education. We will start to push for an A Level and perhaps even degrees in Natural History. I’d like to see a professor of Natural History in every university. I have also had calls about extending this to other countries – to children in Kenya and Tanzania, Australia and America. I hope we can start in small way to green the world.
Mark – a professorship awaits you one day soon.