Please read my previous blog, The Subtle Beauties for a fuller context.
In 2011, natural historian and writer Mary Colwell proposed a Natural History GCSE supported by the Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas MP. There have been petitions in favour and it looks like this will become a reality, so how might it be received by schools?
Mary Colwell is absolutely right to identify the need for children to reconnect with their environment, and for Britain again to recapture its former traditions of nature observation and recording.
‘I would like a GCSE in Natural History to teach the skills of identifying, monitoring and recording the life around us. To know about migration and invasion of species. To understand how the seasons affect wildlife and how that is changing. I would like the history of studying natural history to be taught, from the earliest pioneers to Darwin, and the great natural scientists today. And nature literature, from Gilbert White to Robert McFarlane. To understand how nature on TV and Radio affects conservation. There are so many strands to be explored.’
Mary has also tapped into a zeitgeist, the vocal interest of young people in the future of a world affected by climate change and the growing attractiveness of multidisciplinary subjects. Of course most of the great scientists and artists were and are polymaths – the silos of separate subjects are convenient for learning , grasping content and for examination but the boundaries quickly loosen with greater mastery.
As a literature specialist with a passion for natural history, I would love to teach it. My son, who is studying arts subjects for A levels, would have thought long and hard about choosing Zoology/Natural History if it had been available.
My instincts and sentiments are broadly behind such a move. I agree with the diagnosis and support the purpose. Sadly there are some significant buts or not yets that prevent me from being a stronger advocate for the actual qualification, though this does not mean we should not look for other ways to meet the ultimate purpose.
My hesitations are both philosophical and practical. Education is too frequently understood as qualification and value is too frequently only attributed to what is examined. Schools are rightly accountable for their results and I am concerned that the realities of examination preparation will not encourage the sense of connectedness that is intended.
Ofqual has to ensure comparability between subjects and within the context of the Gove reforms, GCSEs do have more content and there is much less coursework with the emphasis on a final exam rather than the practical field skills and project work that is the realm of natural history.
Ultimately, if we have not sparked a child’s interest before the age of 14, the real need, I am doubtful that this qualification will do the job. On the other hand, because this is the reality in which we live a qualification of some sort may be part of an answer.
I wrote that I would love to teach it, yet the reality is that I have more passion than expertise. Would I be let loose? Should I be let loose, more to the point? The flipside is that there will be many who have some of the content expertise but perhaps not the passion for natural history. Has the long decline in our interest left us with enough who could teach it?
The way timetables are set up in schools makes it very difficult and expensive to have teachers from different disciplines teaching different elements of the course. And ultimately schools do have budgets to manage and I question whether they will they divert resources to it.
A point argued well by Chris Baker in his blog on this subject is that it could lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. Given that most students take either triple award (Physics, Chemistry , Biology as separates) or Dual Award (this triumvirate combined) a fourth choice means sacrificing another option.
Because students make choices, the impact of the qualification is unlikely to be universal. Add in to this the broader context of academic progression building on prior skills and content and with the potential to lead on to a higher level and this adds another layer of complexity. Until I have seen the specifications it is hard to judge, of course.
However, this is a far too negative approach to take for Mary Colwell’s very compelling purpose. At Cranleigh, we have responded to the demise of philosophy within the Religious Studies GCSE by developing our own Schools Certificate in Philosophy, accredited by the New College for the Humanities and accepted by UCAS. In its first year it has been taken up by 30 schools, state and independent. It is supported by online resources and is primarily project based and can be delivered on or off timetable as enrichment. Other schools such as Bedale’s and Sevenoaks have developed similar accredited courses with excellent outcomes.
Freedom from the confines of comparability between subjects that Ofqual is required to demand allows more creative approaches. As Chris Baker rightly comments there is already significant natural historic content within many of the curriculum subjects already, and taught by experts.
I have long groaned at the lack of curriculum mapping within the different exam subjects, exacerbated by the variety of specifications offered by the boards. Were this better, and it can be done internally, a truly multidisciplinary approach would be for pupils to take credits from different subjects to build in to a certificate. For example our Year 9s this year have produced videos in Biology presenting the dangers of climate change, plastic waste etc.; and their focus in printmaking in art has been on nature, using some taxidermy, pictures from great natural artists and ornithologists such as Gould and Audubon as stimuli. I have seen bird and wild animal feeders appear as Product Design coursework and the list goes on.
One of the best Extended Project Qualifications I have ever seen was from a student who undertook a longitudinal survey of the butterflies on a defined patch of land adjacent to his house on Exmoor. There is no reason why a similar project could not be done looking at the birds on a garden or school feeder in any environment. So in essence, a certificate arises through credits from work in other subjects and a final project. There are plenty of possibilities and potential to develop this at any age group and in directions which do not require another examination. Why not develop a Gilbert White Award similar to the Duke of Edinburgh Award for 7-11 year olds, and where credits can be taken from Scouting and Guiding badges for those who do them?
And then there was the conversation I had with Mr Leamon, the member of staff working alongside our Eco Group, only yesterday. We talked about my thoughts for the wild spaces in the school and those that could be wilder; how we could create mini reserves on site and encourage local schools to come in and record what they see; how we ought to hold a conference with exciting speakers and opportunities for all the ecological groups in different schools to come together and share ideas and take action.
Ultimately, we need to get children out into the natural environment from a young age and to be inspired by their surroundings and Mary Colwell is also right that it cannot just be the preserve of the white middle classes and that it needs to be taught. David Lindo, in the 2020 spring edition of the RSPB’s Nature’s Home makes a similar point about the lack of racial diversity amongst naturalists. I think once the government has sorted out a post-Brexit plan for farming we may see more wilding and urban councils are already beginning to see they can save money by leaving areas wild, so access will be increased. There is genuine hope.
The time is ripe to shift the momentum back towards that reconnection we so desperately need. We just need to look for fresher ways of approaching it. And the joy is that we know that there are great ambassadors, broadcasters, wildlife trusts, writers and politicians who are willing to get behind such a move.