“A GCSE in Natural History is a unique opportunity for young people to engage with wildlife in a structured, guided way, to learn the skills of a naturalist at a time when we need them more than ever. I am so delighted it is, at last, a reality.” – Mary Colwell
At a meeting of key stakeholders held at the Natural History Museum on the 21st of April 2022 (World Curlew Day!), the minister for education announced that a GCSE in Natural History will be introduced to schools in September 2025. Designed to provide young people with the skills to be naturalists by identifying, monitoring and recording wildlife in the UK, young people will study the natural world both in the classroom and out of doors, produce and analyse their data, and gain essential field skills. Students will develop an understanding of the connection between wildlife in the UK and abroad through yearly migrations and invasive species. They will also learn the importance of nature to culture and how that has changed through time. They will do this by:
WHY IS THIS GCSE IMPORTANT?
This is a huge step forward towards teaching the skills needed for a future green workforce and towards giving all young people the opportunity to understand and connect with the wildlife around them. This new GCSE marks a turning point at which nature education is given back to young people, and having a knowledge of natural history is given the importance that it needs. The basic building blocks of understanding are crucial as we move towards a sustainable and biodiverse future. Study after study has shown the importance of nature to our mental and physical wellbeing, air and water quality, food production and overall quality of life. This GCSE will help young people to engage with and protect the nature around them.
A sustainable and healthy natural environment goes beyond goes beyond supporting us as individuals, we rely on it for so much more. “Our economies, livelihoods and wellbeing all depend on our most precious asset: nature. We are part of it, not separate from it.” – Dasgupta review on economics of biodiversity. One report has suggested that natural assets are worth US$125 trillion. It is clear that we need nature. The integration of natural history into our education system has been welcomed by young people across the country.
Talia Goldman, Co-Director of UK Youth for Nature, said: “We hugely welcome the introduction of a Natural History GCSE. For thousands of young people, education is so often the cornerstone of caring about and protecting the British countryside and the natural world - and this education will now be offered far more widely than after-school clubs, but to every student who wants to learn about it. This is a huge step forward in educating future generations about the importance of our natural world: for climate change, for our physical health, for our mental health, and for much more.”
HOW DID THIS GCSE COME ABOUT?
This campaign has taken 11 years. Mary Colwell, Director of Curlew Action, first proposed the idea in 2011. In 2017 an online poll pushing for this GCSE very quickly reached over 10,000 signatures but unfortunately was closed early due to the Teresa May’s snap election. The government’s response at the time: “There are existing opportunities in the curriculum to study natural history … there are no plans to introduce any new GCSE subjects.” In 2018 Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, contacted Mary to offer her support and connected Mary with Tim Oats from the OCR exam board, Tim has since been integral to the campaign. An open consultation from 4th June to 19th July 2020 was an important step towards shaping early thinking about what a GCSE in Natural History might look like. A summary infographic of the consultation is below. In January 2022 Mary, Caroline and Tim met with Robert Walker, minister for schools to discuss the GCSE. This was a turning point in the campaign and since then, we have been on tenterhooks waiting for the final decision. Curlew Action has supported Mary through this project by raising awareness and galvanising support for the campaign, we are thrilled that the final outcome.
Caroline Lucas said: “I’m absolutely delighted that the long campaign to introduce a GCSE in Natural History has finally been successful, and I pay tribute to everyone who’s helped to achieve it - first and foremost Mary Colwell, who’s brilliant initiative it was. It’s been a joy working with her and with OCR to promote this idea both inside parliament and out, and to help bring it to fruition. There’s never been a more important moment to reconnect young people to the natural world - our future quite literally depends on it.”
WHAT IS ‘NATURAL HISTORY’?
Our proposed definition of ‘Natural History’, which is the definition that will be used for this GCSE is:
"Natural History focuses on understanding the rich and diverse natural world. Through observational study (generating systematic records of direct and indirect observations, often made over long periods of time) and investigation, natural history seeks to understand the diversity, complexities, and interconnectedness, of life on earth in contrasting habitats. Natural history explores how our natural world has been shaped, and how it continues to change, both by natural processes and through human intervention”.
WILL THIS BE AVAILABLE IN BOTH URBAN AND RURAL AREAS?
Yes! Nature is in cities as well as the countryside. We walk past it in urban environments every day, most of us unconsciously passing over what we would otherwise stop and admire in a different setting. Campaigners have been trying to draw our attention to wildlife in cities; ‘rebel botanists’ have been chalking the names of ‘weeds’ on the pavements and walls. David Lindo, the Urban Birder, says to those who can’t see nature in cities, “look up”. As about 84% of the British population live in urban environments this Natural History GCSE will be an important part of connecting our society to the nature on our doorstep.
HOW WOULD THIS GCSE FIT INTO A PACKED CURRICULUM?
This GCSE will fill a gap in the curriculum, it will give students the opportunity to connect with and understand the natural world in a way that no other subject currently allows. It will do so in a way that complements other subjects, contributing to a broad and balanced curriculum. This GCSE will not only cover how we identify and study nature, but also how nature has impacted us. Britain has a long history of studying nature and the natural world has had a huge impact on our society, from artists to poets to musicians to writers. This subject will explore how nature enriches our lives.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
OCR will now begin working with stakeholders to develop the syllabus, some of the country’s best naturalists will give online lessons about their field of expertise, which will then need to be signed off by Ofqual, the independent qualifications regulator, which ensures that qualifications meet content requirements and sets rules for the assessment and grading.
Everyone here at Curlew Action is so delighted by the news and we will continue to support the GCSE throughout the development phase. Next step: Natural History A Level!