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Natural history gcse: one year on

Next to my home in central Bristol is a block of flats that saw fame in the BBC series, The Outlaws, which used them as the set for desolate, inner-city living.  In a small patch of waste ground in the midst of the concrete someone has created a mini garden, complete with flowers, herbs and an apple tree. A blue chair has been placed for people to sit and enjoy the well-tended plants growing out of the pavement. Painted on it is a message that says: ‘Hope is not a door but the sense that there is a door somewhere.’  I admire this counter-cultural, guerrilla-gardening patch of delight every time I walk home from the bus station.

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Bristol Dove St Flats

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Small garden

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3 Chair of hope

In one of life’s strange interweavings, it is the kids from these flats that were the inspiration for the GCSE in Natural History. Every day they walk to and from school past my house, you can’t miss their rowdy exuberance. I wish there was somewhere for them to let off steam, but in the inner city there are no playing fields, no local woods or meadows to mess around in, nowhere to have fun or to have any meaningful contact with the natural world; these young people are as removed from nature as you can get. It was these gaggles of noisy, litter-dropping, vivacious, nature-less children that made me want to bring the natural world into their lives, and hence the campaign for the qualification.

All young people have the right to see, feel and understand life outside of the human sphere, especially so in the city. I want them to see intricate beauty in the wildflowers along the pavements, to notice birdsong and how it ebbs and flows through the year, bringing colour and music to the streets. Do they know there is a difference between a honey bee and a bumblebee, between an ash and an oak? Does it matter? I think it does. I want them to know the seasons through the changes in leaves, the life and death of flowers, the transformation of butterflies and by the migration of birds, to know what is a fellow resident and what stays for just a few short weeks. I want them to form a relationship with the living world that will sustain them throughout their lives. Nature can be a constant companion in good times and bad, through times of joy and pain, and it will always be something to add fascination and wonder to the everyday.

Most of all, though, we need them to be the hope for the future, the informed, wise, grounded, rooted decision-makers who will deliver a world that burgeons with human and wild-life, a world that has nature at the heart of its social, cultural and economic systems. Because without it we are poor in every sense. My dream is for all young people to have joy in the present and hope in the future.

The GCSE in Natural History was agreed by the Department of Education a year ago, on April 21st 2022 (which also happens to be World Curlew Day). It formed part of the launch of the government’s climate change strategy and took place in the Hinze Hall, the famous entrance hall of the Natural History Museum in London. It was a day of celebration and new beginnings. Over the last 12 months a panel was convened by the department to set the overarching principles for the exam, and that is still taking place. Once the criteria have been agreed by the minister the GCSE has more hoops to negotiate to make sure it is examinable and fair, and it will also go through consultations with a wide range of organisations. Only when all that is complete will the different exam boards design their own GCSEs, which must conform to the criteria. We were hoping this would have been done by now, but as yet we still await sign-off for the criteria from the department for education. It now seems unlikely we will reach the target for first teaching in 2025, it may have to move to 2026. We will keep you updated.

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4 Caroline Lucas MP, Mary Colwell, Tim Oates (Cambridge Assessment)

But the work goes on, because the GCSE can’t be the end of it. It is now accepted that successful economies need to become environmentally sustainable. The climate crisis has led to that recognition, but the equally severe – and completely interlocked – biodiversity crisis (of which curlews are an iconic symbol) receives much less attention, despite the conclusions from the government’s own review, The Economics of Biodiversity – The Dasgupta Review, published in February 2021:

Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature. We are part of Nature, not separate from it. We rely on Nature to provide us with food, water and shelter; regulate our climate and disease; maintain nutrient cycles and oxygen production; and provide us with spiritual fulfilment and opportunities for recreation and recuperation, which can enhance our health and well-being. …Biodiversity enables Nature to be productive, resilient and adaptable. Just as diversity within a portfolio of financial assets reduces risk and uncertainty, so diversity within a portfolio of natural assets increases Nature’s resilience to shocks, reducing the risks to Nature’s services. Reduce biodiversity, and Nature and humanity suffer.

It follows that delivering nature-based solutions to the problems we face requires a workforce with skills that go beyond technology and engineering, skills that are rooted in an understanding of natural history. Nature literacy is also essential for delivering biodiversity net gain (BNG), a strategy to ensure that developed land also contributes to the recovery of nature. The skills of the naturalist are, therefore, essential for the future and derive from studying natural history at all levels of education. This is something we are working on right now – how to embed nature across education, from primary to the tertiary and beyond, so that a pipeline of competent naturalists enters the workforce, ready to take on the global issues of biodiversity loss and climate change that loom ever larger.

Naturalist, Conservationist, Scientist (1)

5 There are far fewer naturalists than conservationists and scientists.

The problem is, naturalists are the poor cousins of science and conservation. For reasons that are complex and varied, we have devalued the skills of the naturalist so much they are often forgotten - but they are not the same. A naturalist is not necessarily a conservationist or a scientist, they are related but different, but they can and must be held in the same regard. In the diagram below, the sweet spot is where the three circles intersect, but any of the overlapping areas is better than isolation. We have to up the number of naturalists in society, by a very long way.

As our plans develop, we will keep you informed – but rest assured, we won’t stop until nature is part and parcel of what we do at home and in places of learning and work. The GCSE in Natural History is step one – but the path to nature recovery and reconnection stretches ahead.

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