Podcast - Developing a GCSE in natural history

Developing a GCSE in natural history

31 Jan 2020 (15:04)

Download this podcast (mp3, 10mb)

OCR's development of a GCSE in natural history is discussed by Jill Duffy, OCR Chief Executive and Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment Director of Assessment Research and Development.

Jill and Tim are keen to hear from interested stakeholders with ideas for a GCSE in natural history.

Contact Cambridge Assessment

Podcast transcript

Alana Walden: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the Cambridge Assessment podcast. I'm Alana Walden and today we're joined by Tim Oates Cambridge Assessment's Director of Assessment, Research and Development and Jill Duffy, Chief Executive of our UK exam board OCR as they discuss recently confirmed plans to develop a new GCSE in natural history.

Jill Duffy: [00:00:18] Hi, Tim. There's been an awful lot of media interest in GCSE natural history. Do you want to just sort of explain where this idea has come from?

Tim Oates: [00:00:26] Yeah, well, and we're really pleased, by the way, that the media and the public and important organisations and people have picked up this discussion about a GCSE in Natural history. It really started with Mary Colwell, the journalist and naturalist. She's quite famous for a book she wrote, Curlew Moon, about the decline of the curlew in England. Her interests are much wider than that and she was very concerned about the detachment of young people from the natural world, the increasing detachment and that's been shown in, for example, the work of Robert McFarlane, who's shown that young people are dropping the names of common species from the way in which they talk about the world and even dictionaries are beginning to drop species that you and I would be entirely familiar with.

Is it just a bunch of oldies concerned that the youngsters are no longer remembering things? Some think yes. My own background is that I was very connected to nature and drew constantly on my experience of being out there. And the evidence in the research is showing that young people are quite disconnected from the natural world and yet are concerned about the climate, about the environment and what we're doing as a species on the planet.

Mary became concerned about it, thought about what should be done to correct the kind of direction of travel, in terms of young people's engagement with the natural world and thought that a formal qualification would be useful; one part of the complex jigsaw of responding to this.

She put together a petition, there were thousands of signatories to this and a lot of interest by responsible bodies and associations and a couple of years ago the politician Caroline Lucas from the Green Party became interested and widened the activities around the GCSE. Mary and Caroline went to see the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State said, well, you would need to talk to an awarding body. So they involved me in discussions and I put together some aims and a prototype assessment model and the media stories took off from that. So all of that adds up, I think, to the GCSE being a good idea. Jill, can you look at why we need one? Do you think?

Jill Duffy: [00:02:55] Well, I think we think there's a gap in the curriculum at the moment that isn't encouraging a connection with the natural world and at the same time, we know that young people are very much engaged in the debate on the environment and they understand what their role should be and could be in protecting for the future.

Research that was done by Oxfam showed that only 4 percent of students feel that they know a lot about climate change and 70 percent of students want to learn more about the environment. So we know that they want to get engaged, but we also know that they feel at the moment that they don't have enough knowledge or understanding to help them engage effectively.

Tim Oates: [00:03:34] I think the thing with GCSEs is they feel terribly formal, it's an examination. But I guess what we know is that one of the things that is important in education is the role of assessment. It has a strong wash-back into learning programs, it enables recognition of learning, it gives structure and focus, it allows us to be very clear about what it is that we see as the desirable outcomes. It will be important to get it right there, won't it, because that wash-back occasionally can be adverse. It needs to be done very carefully to make sure it's positive that if we're concerned about young children's engagement with the natural world that the GCSE has to genuinely contribute to that, not actually threaten that.

Jill Duffy: [00:04:23] Yeah, absolutely. And I think we know that, we're already covering some environmental topics in subjects such as GCSE Geography or GCSE Biology, but we think that this natural history could compliment that and really bridge the gap between these subjects so that we get a sort of a richer, if you like, understanding of the environment for young people.

Tim Oates: [00:04:48] So that raises the whole question of why the title natural history, not something else. What the content should be and what the assessment should look like. And we've already done some I think some very good and detailed thinking about that. What was your reaction to the term natural history when you were first exposed to it?

Jill Duffy: [00:05:11] Well, I think when I was first exposed to it, as you know, I thought, is this the right title? Because it seemed a bit sort of old fashioned, but I think when you look at it, it does sort of encompass much more about, if you like, the holistic thing that we're talking about here, about the relationship between nature, the environment and society, if you like. So I think, I think it absolutely works as a title and links to things like the Natural History Museum. So I think it's a good title.

Tim Oates: [00:05:52] That's amusing in many ways that when Mary, Caroline and I have taken the idea out and to teachers, to young people, to parents, people often said "oh natural history, it sounds very traditional, doesn't it?" And the moment we explain what the content, the proposed content and scope of the qualification on the learning program is, we're engaging with how the natural world has been represented in art and literature, engaging with whole organisms in context, getting out there, doing observational work, writing up those observations, collect gathering data, presenting it, interpreting it, that they immediately come to the conclusion that actually natural history is the right title.

It refers back indeed to a long tradition established in Britain of classifying, understanding, observing and reflecting on the natural world. So it looks forward, I think, to better consciousness and management of our relationship with the natural world and back at all of the insights that we gain through the history of engagement with nature. So I'm pretty convinced it has the right resonance and the right content. So Jill, as Chief Executive of OCR, what do you see as the challenges in developing the qualification?

Jill Duffy: [00:07:28] I think, first of all, we need to look at how this will be managed in the schools. So, for example, who's going to teach it and how we're going to support them? Because we haven't got a host of teachers who are natural history teachers. But we know we've got a lot of teachers who would be very interested in teaching this subject. So what sort of professional development do we need to develop, that will make them feel confident in teaching this? And how can we ensure that we've got good support to enable them to teach this in the classroom?

So, I think working with teachers, working with other stakeholders is incredibly important. We're already consulting widely on this, so we're talking to a range of stakeholders, including young people themselves. We're talking to representatives of teachers such as ASCL, engaging with the Royal Society as well as other bodies and, you know, working to talk to as many people as possible. So if anyone is interested in engaging with us on this, then please, please get in touch with us. And I think, you know, one thing, it would be good to get your view on Tim is obviously we need to know where this will be in these sort of accountability measures. I don't know if you've got any early thoughts on that?

Tim Oates: [00:08:48] Well, it's absolutely critical. It's a new subject. How does it fit? How would it fit in relationship to existing subjects? How would it fit within, as you say, the accountability measures and targets like the English Baccalaureate specification. We’ve done a lot of thinking about this. And we see it in the following way. There are some unique aspects to this potential qualification. We know that biologists in university biology departments are concerned that engagement with whole organisms in context has kind of, without quite realising it, been moved out of the higher education curriculum.

Biology tended to focus on theoretical aspects of the subject and on sub-disciplines within biology via chemistry and so on. So this focus on whole organisms in context, getting out there and observing them, understanding their behaviour, understanding the challenges which they face. That's welcomed by people in higher education. So it fits quite nicely in terms of some real curriculum needs, we think.

How does it fit with other qualifications? We've done some prototype content. Would it just simply overlap in an unmanageable way with geography and biology? No. In looking at the way in which the natural world has been represented in art and literature, in looking at local contexts, understanding how to observe log data and so on. We don’t find any more biology and geography from the existing qualifications in natural history than there is, say, mathematics and physics or geography and history. So that's good.

I mean we in curriculum terms, I think we can locate it really well. It would have a unique character. It would add to the qualifications catalogue in an appropriate way, not overlap unduly with existing well-established qualifications and subjects.

In terms of accountability, measures and targets. The English Baccalaureate is clearly, clearly a crucial one for the nation. We are currently proposing that natural history does not sit as a science within the core requirement of the English Baccalaureate. In working with schools, we know that schools can meet the English Baccalaureate requirement and still children can take three to four additional GCSEs to enrich the program that they take, and for those programs to be balanced, broad and balanced.

So we think it will sit within these three to four option slots, alongside the formal English Baccalaureate requirement, giving a nice pathway and enrichment and engaging element to the total set of qualifications which children take in key stage four. So, Jill, we've talked about the challenges of development and let's not underestimate the detailed work and the sheer grind of the detail in getting something like this really sorted.

[00:12:34] I suppose the media stories have been incredibly positive. But we've got agreement of quite a high level of generality at the moment. We've now got to get through the process of reaching a secure agreement about the specifics of the qualification to make sure that it covers what will indeed motivate, engage young people and prepare them for the future, and will lead to teachable, manageable and rich programs within schools.

So we will have to work through a great deal of the detail, and some of those detail points are controversial and getting the balance across the themes that we've already discussed right. That is going to be challenging, but consultation, I'm sure, and dialogue with key individuals, with key constituencies, students, teachers, parents, is going to be fundamental to that and so I can see why you've emphasised it, that consultation process and the need for people to get in contact with us to make sure that we're encompassing their considerations, their concerns as well. That's so, so important. Do you want to round up with the future of this qualification?

Jill Duffy: [00:13:59] Yeah, I mean, I think the next steps are, as I say, we are doing a consultation, a very wide consultation on this. And then we will be working with the DfE in terms of the content of this qualification. I think for me, you know, what do I think the future of this qualification is? Well, for me, it's very much about encouraging a connection with the natural world for our young people. Because without that connection, I think it becomes difficult for young people to engage in the debate on the environment and understand what they could do to really protect the environment for the future. I just want to finish with what Caroline Lucas has said recently: "we won't protect what we don't love, and we won't love what we don't know."

Tim Oates: [00:14:51] Thank you very much Jill.

Alana Walden: [00:14:54] Thank you for listening to the Cambridge Assessment podcast. You can find all our podcasts on the Cambridge Assessment website. Just search podcast gallery or you can find us on YouTube, or wherever you usually listen to your podcasts.

Return to top

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.