Friday, 7 April 2017

GCSE in Natural History - reply to Chris Baker

Chris Baker is a teacher and wildlife lover.  He recently wrote a blog criticising the idea of a GCSE in Natural History. This is the point of the petition, to get a debate going, so here is my reply.

The first point: It’s an interesting idea and one that has good intentions. But I do not think it is good idea. For selfish reasons I would love to teach natural history as a subject on its own. The joy! But to how many students?  Would it benefit them? And would it positively affect the effort to conserve the curlew – The campaign (and a worthy cause I might add) that seems to have led to the creation of this petition?

I personally think the uptake would be good, but that must be part of the development process. There is a great hunger for nature that is more buried, but is certainly still there.  More young people watched Planet Earth 2 than the X-Factor which was screened on the other side. Tapping into this interest in life on earth is a no-brainer.  I'm not sure where the curlew link came from.  I came up with the idea for this GCSE in 2011, but didn't start the curlew work until 2016 - although I think it would help, not least by introducing more children to the fact curlews exist -but the campaigns are not related.

Second point: The second sentence of the petition reads ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife’. I take issue with the word need here. I believe that young people can benefit greatly from learning these skills but they do not need them. They need to perform arithmetic so they can check energy bills, read competently and problem solve. Speaking as a science specialist, I would also argue that young people, in a time when internet memes and click-bait links are regarded by some as a valid sources of information on issues as serious as health and disease, need the ability to distinguish good science from pseudoscience. But they don’t need to know how wildlife is recorded. To some children, learning how to do so would be irrelevant and a waste of time. We can’t let our own passions and interests dictate what children must know.

This is where I fundamentally part company with Chris Baker. I think it is vital we know the world around us, that we can name what is in our lives everyday, know the seasons and the movements of life on earth.  Young people increasingly live in an indoor world of ideas, not an outdoor world of senses.  The visceral, earthy world is more remote than ever.  We are mammals with senses attuned to taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing - all of those are brought into play when studying nature, but used for screens?  Surely we must have an education system that fits who we are?  If you can record wildlife, plot the data, work out trends - then I bet you can cope with an energy bill.  A GCSE in natural history brings together maths, english, geography, biology, history - merging them into a subject of fascination and relevance to life. It is not some quirky subject that only a few geeks will like - that simply isn't true.  Nature has inspired some of the greatest thinkers, writers, artists, musicians, poets and scientists - why sideline it and treat it as an irrelevance? Let's celebrate our unique heritage, teach it and encourage the next cohort of inspirational naturalists.

The rest of the blog argues that the content of a GCSE in Natural History is present in other subjects anyway - so it is already being taught.  If that is true, then they are failing.  My son is doing triple science at the moment, including biology.  I can't see any natural history in his work - he doesn't have to have any of the skills I outline in the proposal.  He does some academic work on extinctions etc, but that is not what I am talking about.  Of course biology is a fundamental subject - but to say natural history is simply a part of it is like saying geology is just part of geography. Neither is natural history the same as environmental science - it is a subject in its own right.

Studying nature is rich and rewarding - and the skills gained are increasingly being lost.  We cannot be complacent about nature today and assume all is fine because we teach biology . The system as it is is not working for wildlife.  Britain was highlighted as one of the most nature depleted countries on earth in the 2016 State of Nature report, we are losing our natural heritage and there is no time to waste. Young people think this quiet, threadbare tapestry of nature is normal - it isn't normal, it is slipping away under our noses - we cannot and must not be complacent. Britain has a truly wonderful history of nature recording, writing, art and music and so on - now is the time to regain that and produce future naturalists who will fight for the natural world, not just through conservation work but through inspirational creativity.  Nothing that Chris Baker highlights in his blog has changed my opinion.


  1. Spot on Mary.
    I think Chris is not looking at the bigger picture. The natural world should be in-bedded into education from a very young age. Children NEED to realise that they are a very small part of an ecosystem & our large scale actions are having a devastating effect on that ecosystem. Instead of asking how many apples Sally has left if she gives Danny 2, why not ask if an apple tree needs 6 Bees to produce 12 apples, how many apples do you get if 2 Bees die? Simplistic I know but you get the idea. Just imagine the scope for natural world scenarios in other subjects too. The fact that lots of young people watched planet Earth 2 means we still have a chance to step back from the precipice we are currently standing at the edge of. That is the BIG picture.

  2. Stewart,
    Please read my full blog article. The natural world is included in Early Years, Key stage 1,2,3 & 4 but content needs improving & updating. An optional GCSE impacts only a handful of 14-16 year olds. My suggestion is to bolster national curriculum content so that learning about UK wildlife species (identification & life history traits) becomes mandatory, affecting around 600,000 GCSE students annually: Let me know what you think. Thanks