Guest blog – Natural History GCSE (4) 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 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.


21 Replies to “Guest blog – Natural History GCSE (4) by Mary Colwell”

  1. Excellent. I only wish my ‘kids’ were a few years younger. Being able to put a name to things is an essential starting point. If you don’t know what a Chaffinch is then why would you care that we have lost over 50% of them in the last few years, and how will you contribute to surveys to see if they are recovering?

    1. I agree completely, Ian. Knowing what something is called is the gateway to exploring its story . But there are fundamental blocks at present to knowing names. One is that natural history is and always will be a minority interest and that knowing too much is seen by many as geeky. It’s also viewed by some as a “soft” subject: you only have to watch how some of our “cleverest” students are stumped on University Challenge by simple tree or bird identification. Another is that professional naturalists are often specialists but lack the general picture. I’ve met many professional ecologists who know bat and great crested newt legislation inside out, but are foxed by a beetle or flower they meet in the field. There are some good ecologists of course and it’s the system which is the problem, forcing people to regard habitats and species needs as if they were industrial targets. What I hope this natural history qualification will do is to create more knowledgeable generalists who are interested in a wide range of wildlife and have a good basic knowledge of how we affect it. So if for example, council officials decree that road verges should be cut in spring, they should realise the impact this has on solitary bees or spring butterflies . Right now we have a generation which can plead ignorance because they’ve never needed to know anything about wildlife during their formal education. That excuse should not be so easy to use in future.

      1. In this country the transformation from school-leaver to expert can be summed as learning more and more about less and less.

        Then you spend the rest of your life recovering from the damage.

      2. Very much agree. Your thoughts would make a great column, half written already!

  2. Wonderful stuff Mary, and hopefully having an O Level in the subject will reduce the crippling self consciousness that stops many young people from fully expressing their interest in natural history. I’m certain this is having a massively negative effect. Loved Curlew Moon and really looking forward to your book on attitudes and practice towards predation.

  3. Congratulations on your progress Mary, I’m sure it will be an enjoyable and useful course. Hopefully we can get some species identification by recall into the biology national curriculum too.

  4. If you keep us updated on the progress of this I will happily become a champion and perhaps tutor when this comes about -currently training in nature therapy I know this is what children need. Thank you for pushing this Mary.

  5. Excellent. I’ve consistently supported this idea, and to be frank I just don’t understand the criticisms of it. I really like how Mary is ambitious about wanting to expand this from A level, to even degree level.

    I’ve long made clear that I believe natural history, the basics of ecology and environmental science should be core curriculum subjects, on par with reading, writing and arithmetic. That this shouldn’t just be about children or young people, and that there should be certificates in natural history competence at adult level. That just like first aid certificates, at least a GCSE pass grade in English, which are often essential for many jobs. That this should also be a requirement for any job that requires any decisions about the environment and the natural world. The primary aim being to instil in people what knowledge exists, and how much of it there is, rather than to teach people everything.

    It is beyond absurd that people are making major decisions effecting what are essentially our life support systems, and they not only lack all knowledge of the natural world and the role it plays in sustaining us and our economy, but they have profoundly false ideas about it. In particular there are two primary failings/misunderstandings. Firstly and most importantly it is not respected knowledge, and secondly allied to this is the false idea that it is very simple knowledge. When in fact the natural world is the most complex subject known to humankind. Where even the most knowledgeable person can only know a tiny fraction of what can be known.

    The analogy I use to explain what I’m getting at is maths and arithmetic. No one who’s had any sort of education, would ever fall into the trap of thinking that maths was an easy subject, or over-estimate their abilities with maths. That’s because all those who’ve been exposed to an education system have done enough maths to realise how complex it is and their own inabilities with it, or rather their lack of ability. Yet despite the natural world being infinitely more complex, people, in important decision making and powerful positions, repeatedly and persistently, grossly over-estimate their insight into the natural world, simply because they’ve never been exposed to it’s complexity, or tested on the subject.

    As someone with quite a lot of experience of taking people out into the natural world, showing people around, guiding walks etc, I’m painfully aware of this. People are grossly over-confident in what they know. Yet put them in any bit of local semi-natural habitat they might have been familiar with for most of their lives, and ask them to identify what is around them, or point out some of what is there, and the lights suddenly go on. In that instant, they suddenly realise they know absolutely nothing. People really should not be discovering this for the first time when they are an older, or even a retired adult. At the very least, as a child, even if they didn’t learn very much about the subject, they should have been confronted with the sheer complexity of the subject, and just how much there was to know, or as is more pertinent, how little they know. To only suddenly realise this late in life, and most probably never do, says there is something seriously wrong and lacking in our culture.

    1. Spot on SteB. And the plus is that, complex or not, it is a fun subject.
      Wish I could have done it instead of mathematics!

  6. Absolutely brilliant!

    I think my eldest granddaughter who is just 13 will be keen to be among the first batch of students so sincere thanks,

  7. Brilliant. I thought the original idea good but wasn’t sure it could or would run but my pessimism was misplaced fortunately.
    This may be a small step but getting our children and children’s children connected back to the natural world can only be a good thing and a GCSE means basics being taught lower down the education tree, it has to be a win win. Well done Mary.

  8. Making nature accessible to all, irrespective of postcode or income, is a vital first step on this path.
    It is very different to how things were fifty years ago ( as many have lamented) when, although we may have lived in a detached bungalow, my companions on birdnesting, sticklebacking, scrumping, and later shooting expeditions, were invariably from local council housing or other
    rented homes.
    The posh kids would not have been seen dead with us lot, more fool them.
    What i have found encouraging the last few years, at least among primary school kids, is the use
    of the phrase’ Circle of life’, and they know what it means, so along with the growth in forest schools, something is stirring.

  9. I think this is a really interesting idea and I’m pleased to see it happen – well done Mary and everyone involved! I describe myself as an ecologist (sometimes ornithologist) professionally, but a natural historian for fun, but the two certainly feed off each other. Many (not all) of the best ecologists I know are excellent natural historians, and one thing that has frustrated me for a long time is that while natural history helps ecologists, we can’t really teach it as part of our degree (syllabus is just too full). My colleagues and I discussed this a while ago in on of our anarchic coffee breaks and concluded that all of us there professionally doing field ecology could ID >1000 species, but we’d all learnt these in our spare time. Natural History is much more than identifying species, of course, but it is a core component.

    More generally, one question I often ask my students is what do they think the difference is between ecology and natural history? I’m interested to know people’s views more widely. What, exactly, is the difference between natural history and ecology?

  10. Cannot tell you just how over the moon I am to read this! Yes, the present situation has brought more people in contact with the natural world, but that may not continue once ‘normal’ resumes. Our children/grandchildren deserve every bit of help and knowledge they can be given to stay in touch with the wonder and beauty that is out there, and learnt to care for it! I hope younger children from nursery age will also benefit from a knock on effect. I’ve also been ashamed at the lack of knowledge of University Challenge students, but also by the Chasers on ITV!

  11. Well done to everyone involved, this is brilliant! May I ask though how you plan to ensure that “the children in council flats … will have as much access to knowledge about nature as public-school children in the suburbs”? I totally agree with the point that “Access to an understanding of nature should not depend on postcode or family salary” but I can’t see this GCSE being seen as a priority option in many schools which are already struggling – and where, at their most limited (through resources, staffing, capability, funding etc), optional GCSEs are usually reduced to art, drama and sometimes business studies. Doesn’t this have the potential to widen the divide, not reduce it? Please don’t think this is nay saying, I would LOVE for this to work but think it’s an import question to address!

  12. Thanks for all your comments and support. I really do appreciate it. We are producing a FAQs document which I will post as soon as it is finalised. Re Rebecca’s question, all I can say is that we have had overwhelming support from schools across the board, rural and city centre. Of course, I can’t guarantee everyone will take it up, but it will be there if and when they do, and I hope demand will grow as it becomes established. I feel young people really do want to know more about natural history – the real nitty gritty of what things are and their ecology, as well as the literary/artistic/historical connection. So let’s try to make it as good as it can be. The fact it is a GCSE offered to all schools has to be a good starting place. As I say, it isn’t a silver bullet, but it is at least an attempt to start to make a difference.

  13. I am an ex-Geography Teacher and would love to teach a GCSE in Natural History. My concerns would be convincing Curriculum Leaders that it would not be poaching from other GCSE’s, that it would count towards progress 8 and that it is accessible to SEND students. I hope you will publicise training opportunities as soon as it is possible.

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