6 July 2020
While the debate rages about when and how students can return safely to school, we'd like to talk about what they could be learning. The Green Party has backed calls for a GCSE in Natural History to be introduced as early as September 2021. It was a key pledge in our manifesto for the General Election 6 months ago "to encourage children to value nature, and to grow a whole new generation of naturalists".
It's a long time since I was at junior school but back in those days we did regular nature walks, looking at and identifying wild flowers, butterflies, birds and their songs, and getting exercise in the outdoors: just learning that outside was a good place to be. This time last year, a survey discovered that 51% of children, aged between 6 and 16, could not identify a stinging nettle, and 83% failed to identify a bumblebee. If the shackles of endless testing and measuring were removed, we could reduce stress in pupils and free up time to be spent in outdoor lessons.
Whereas Biology focuses on processes, a Natural History GCSE would concentrate on teaching teenagers about specific organisms, field observation skills, conservation and how nature has influenced art and culture. Covid 19 furlough and school break, coupled with good weather, have seen a lot more families taking exercise in the outdoors, so more and more young people are making connections with nature. Many more have been watching wildlife programmes on TV and this new subject would tap into what was already a big movement of young people who care about the natural world, as we know from the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion.
Developing identification and observation skills would enable young people to recognise the lack of wildlife in intensively farmed areas compared with those farmed with the natural world in mind. They could recognise food that grows wild in our countryside if it is given wild places to grow, and they would ask questions about animal welfare and the food we eat.
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas was talking to Michael Gove, when he was Environment Secretary and he supported the idea and put it forward to exam boards. The current crisis has given us all a chance to re-evaluate what is important and provides a perfect opportunity to introduce new thinking into education too.
Published in the Whitehaven News 24.6.20 and the Times & Star 10.7.20.