The path to a Natural History GCSE

Four out of five children in the UK are unable to identify a bumblebee, while one in two cannot identify a nettle[1]. The lack of connection to nature which this shows has driven a proposal by naturalist Mary Colwell to create a new qualification in natural history, an event has heard.

Mary told a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar that, in contrast to previous generations, 40 per cent of children now spent barely any time playing outdoors[2]. This was leading to a deficit of knowledge and understanding of our neighbours in the natural world, she said.

Not knowing names is indicative of a deeper gulf between us and nature: “If we don’t know the name of something, it’s very difficult to have a meaningful relationship with it,” she said, noting how the Oxford Junior Dictionary had removed a number of nature words such as “conker”, “magpie” and “otter” because they “are now not considered useful to children in early secondary or late junior school”.

Mary’s proposal for a GCSE in Natural History, developed in association with Cambridge Assessment’s Tim Oates CBE and UK exam board OCR, is currently with England’s Department for Education (DfE) for approval.

During the seminar Mary charted her 11-year journey to develop the proposal. She had the idea after working at the BBC Natural History Unit. Support was garnered with a 10,000-strong petition but then Mary said the project lacked traction until Green Party MP Caroline Lucas got involved. Mary described Ms Lucas’ role as “like [Peter Pan character] Tinker Bell with a magic wand”, with the MP securing a meeting with then Environment Secretary Michael Gove. That in turn led to a meeting with Tim, who Mary described as “the second Tinker Bell” in the project.

“Not only was Tim interested, but he really took it seriously” she said. “He provided the introduction into this extraordinarily complex world of education that I had no concept of at all. He was the guru that led us through”.

The draft syllabus includes highly active engagement with nature through observation and fieldwork; suitable for young people in both urban and in rural settings. If approved by the DfE and then the England exams regulator Ofqual, the new qualification could be taught from as soon as September 2023.

Tim, who chaired the review of the National Curriculum in England, said that if approved, the qualification would “provide an antidote to fatalism which can so easily beset society these days in the face of the extraordinary challenges facing our natural world, such as climate change”.

Mary echoed Tim’s comments, summing up by saying: “A GCSE in Natural History would reconnect our young people with the natural world around them. Not just because it’s fascinating, not just because it’s got benefits for mental health, but because we’ll need these young people to create a world we can all live in, a vibrant and healthy planet.”

Mary and Tim then took part in a question and answer session, with queries ranging from the name of the qualification through to who would teach it and why it would be a GCSE. You can watch the full video of Mary’s talk back by clicking on the link above.

[1] According to a survey for family activity app Hoop in 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/49331144

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/25/three-quarters-of-uk-children-spend-less-time-outdoors-than-prison-inmates-survey