To many people these days, nature is more or less a green blur: pleasant, desirable but largely anonymous. Take trees – four-fifths of Britons cannot identify an ash from its leaves, according to a Woodland Trust survey in 2013. Meanwhile, ash dieback disease is fast wreaking havoc, wiping out one of the most abundant and wildlife-rich trees in the country. The trouble is, how can conservationists expect the public to care, if they don’t even notice?
Study after study has shown a widespread ignorance of iconic natural things that form the fabric of our world, from acorns to adders, buttercups to bramble, catkins to conkers. In a nutshell, as it were, we no longer know our A, B, C of nature. Growing concern about this ecological illiteracy, and what it means for our future, has been driving the campaign to introduce a new GCSE in natural history in the UK, one of the most nature-depleted nations on the planet.
Author, radio producer and environmental activist Mary Colwell – best known for her Radio 4 series Shared Planet and Saving Species, and her book Curlew Moon – first had the idea a decade ago: “It came to me like a thunderbolt,” she tells me now. Her brainwave triggered an “initial flurry of interest”, then spent years on the backburner.
Despairing at the worsening biodiversity crisis, Mary tried again in 2017. Relaunching her proposal with a petition, she captured the zeitgeist perfectly, sparking newspaper comment pieces and countless exchanges on social media. Government ministers made encouraging noises. Crucially, a major exam board lent its support.
At last, the secondary-school qualification dreamed up by Mary and since backed by Chris Packham, Baroness Floella Benjamin, Eden Project founder Sir Tim Smit and many other leading conservationists – though the scheme has plenty of vocal detractors – could be coming to fruition. (GCSEs are taken in England, Wales and Northern Ireland at age 15–16; Scotland has an equivalent system, known as ‘National 5s’.)
FROM THE CLASSROOM
Outdoor learning lead
“I see the GCSE as very positive – perhaps because we are a small rural school. We cater for children aged 10–12 in Years 6, 7 and 8, so what would be on offer to us is the ambition – the recognition that this is something kids could go on to study. The GCSE would validate the eco-activities we do here, and would suit students who don’t want to do pure sciences. Some would be doing it more for the practical skills. Students sometimes think biology is very textbook-based.”
Point of difference
But what will the course consist of, and how might it differ from the biology or geography taught now? “I have spent hours discussing this with the OCR exam board,” Mary says. “What we have is different and doable.” The bare bones of the syllabus, she says, will be looking closely at animals, plants and other organisms, learning to record and identify species, seeing how they fit into real habitats. Practical skills, a naturalist’s fieldcraft, will be as important as the theory of ecology.
This focus on observation and taxonomy addresses a persistent complaint with biology in today’s curriculum: that it is possible to get top grades with virtually no first-hand experience of even the most plentiful living things, while barely leaving the confines of the classroom. Mary’s approach could seem back to basics – ‘old school’, you might say – but she and her supporters are unapologetic.
Sir David Attenborough is likely to be a fan. “Let’s not denigrate taxonomy,” he told me in an interview for BBC Wildlife in 2016. “Taxonomy is like learning the alphabet. It’s concerned with definitions. You can’t speak English properly unless you’ve got definitions, and you can’t do zoology properly unless you know all about the structure and relationships of the animals you’re discussing.”
The proposed natural history GCSE, however, has ambitions to range more widely. It aims to be both relevant and bang up to date, insists Tim Oates, group director of assessment, research and development at OCR. He explains that the course, whose gestation he is helping oversee, will cover the ethics of how species are discovered and collected, and consider the place of natural history in culture, from art to music and literature. Conservation issues, such as the extinction crisis and climate change, will be “at the heart of everything.”
This is an idea whose time has come, says Tim. “We are not just adding another arbitrary GCSE to the catalogue.” Dismissing the issue of duplication with existing subjects offered in schools, he says: “There is no more biology in natural history than there is mathematics in physics, or geography in history. Obviously, there’s some overlap, but that is true of every area of knowledge. The key thing is going to be our emphasis on studying whole organisms in context.”
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