Year 10 Trip to Vacaresti Nature Park

vacaresti kids

Vacaresti Nature Park has received a lot of international attention over the past couple of years, with feature articles in National Geographic and The Guardian. Prince Charles visited on 30th of March, guided by members of the Vacaresti Nature Park Association, where he planted a white poplar tree. Vacaresti area was a thriving urban settlement until 1986 when Nicholae Ceausescu had the area bulldozed to make way for a vanity project (one of many) – a lake topped with a huge fountain that he and his wife Elena could enjoy. The project hit numerous failures and was finally abandoned after the revolution against the communist regime in 1989. For years the site lay abandoned, fenced off and able to grow wild. In May 2016 the site was officially granted nature park status.

Spanning 183 hectares and located just 4km away from Bucharest city centre, this natural gem is home to over one hundred species of bird, including ferruginous duck, marsh harrier, willow warbler and common cuckoo (we heard two calling). There is a family of five otters, a species indicator for high water quality. I could go on but suffice to say Vacaresti is brimming with biodiversity.

I got in touch with Vlad, official biologist at Vacaresti, a few months ago on the off chance that he might be available to take a group of thirty Year 10 geography and biology students around the site during the first day of their annual trips week. He was happy to do so and offered to take them up to the 17th floor office observatory where he gave a talk on the history and importance of the site. Vlad by his own admition is used to talking to primary-age pupils but his presentation was very interesting and gave a great personal insight into the process of turning this once concrete mass into a thriving biological hotspot. Next year, I will ask him to come to our school a week before we visit to save time, having described the biology syllabus and how it links with our planned fieldwork to him, detail I was too brief on this time around.

Students spent a total of an hour and half carrying out field work, a lot less than we had originally planned but it was probably for the best as the temperature hit 30oC. Split into groups of three, students sampled areas around one of the smaller lakes using quadrating techniques learned the week before in our rewilding zone, cautiously throwing the 1m2 behind their heads to avoid bias. Later in the classroom we talked about how using a grid over a map and random number generator to choose co-ordinates would have been more reliable.  Each student received a laminated pamphlet with pictures of common European plants, although Google seemed the preferable source for identification, not least because so many species were missing from the guide.

Each student drew an enlarged sketch of an invertebrate or wildflower, as they will have to in the alternative to practical examination next year from a black-and-white photograph. Pupils mainly drew from pictures taken on their mobile phones, my favourite being of a Southern damselfly parasitised by seven symmetrically arranged mites – one in the middle and six either side. The drawing is worth four marks out of forty in Paper 6 which is worth 20% of the total score (Paper 6 is one of three papers students will sit, the multiple choice and structured answer papers being worth 30% and 50% respectively), so it doesn’t carry major weight but it is four marks in the bank if perfected. Other choices of drawing included a mystery species of red-spotted ladybird and morning glory.

Some of the students had to power through their aversion to creepy crawlies, a common dislike that I find doesn’t become a significant hindrance if not given too much attention, but a couple of the girls seemed more than a just bit squeamish and I must admit I felt really quite sorry for them around the sheer volume of bees, spiders, beetles and damselflies. Nevertheless they persevered and I hope that they will feel more comfortable around bugs in future.

The view from the 14th floor observatory was spectacular and linked in with the GCSE Geography requirement to draw site plan sketches but next time we need to get into the field quicker, with a break in the shade of a tree to top up on water and sunscreen. Overall, a successful trip that needs some tweaking.

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A 3D-printed Homo naledi skull!

H. naledi

Homo naledi has caused a lot of excitement and intrigue in palaeoanthropology and evolutionary biology since its discovery in 2013 by Lee Berger and his team in South Africa. This hominid had many of the characteristics we normally associate with humanoid species that lived around 2 million years ago, having a small brain and curved fingers. But recent analysis has concluded that the fossils could be as young as 200,000 years old – placing it at approximately the same time as early Homo sapiens. So rather than being an ancestor of modern humans, we might surmise that these individuals overlapped with the appearance of our first H. sapiens ancestors. It is not too unreasonable to assume that our appearance might have played a significant part in the extinction of this relic species, given that so many other extinctions coincide with the appearance of modern man.

I have wanted to get my hands on a few casts of humanoid species for years but have always found them too expensive to justify given the small amount of human evolution content typically covered by students in secondary school science curricula and syllabi. Luckily, the discoverers of H. naledi made the fossil scans publicly available, going against the field’s normal habit of protecting the blue prints whilst they carry out tests and so on. I looked up the codes and forwarded them to our tech guy who duly set out to print what resulted in a beautifully detailed H. naledi skull cast. Twenty four hours later I was face to face with Nigel, Nora or whatever the students decide to name him/her.

Surprisingly small yet still recognisibly human-like in form, the cast has made an excellent addition to the biology classroom shelf alongside a model of a double helix and a fox skull found in nearby Baneasa forest. Students love visual aids and will enjoy exploring the skull without having to worry too much about being careful. It took a few hours to print and cost the equivalent of less than five pounds. Obviously the 3D printer was expensive and should be taken into consideration for total cost but now I know a bit more about this amazing technology I will be on the look-out for the codes to print similarly interesting artifacts. Perhaps we will print more bones and get students to assemble the parts. That would be very cool.

Long-eared Owlet in School!

owlet 1

Owls are nesting opposite the Science Garden! The discovery could not have come at a better time. Poor weather meant I had an hour to alter my lesson plan before Birding Club showed up for their weekly after school activity. An English teacher brought me a photograph of an owlet during a Year 8 lesson. I sent a member of Bird Club in the lesson to investigate. This boy loves wildlife and was delighted to get away from physics questions for ten minutes. He struggles with reading and writing so his recent ecology test score did not reflect the wealth of knowledge he can call upon at the drop of a hat, from naming frog species to describing predator-prey interactions. He has extra time and a scribe for tests but we still have a lot of progress to make before his grades begin to reflect his ability.

We tried to keep the location of the owlet secret to avoid disturbance but by the time Birding Club arrived at the scene, a handful of maintenance staff had gathered. Some were pulling on branches to get a better look and taking flash photographs right up close to the bird. I dispersed them in as polite a manner as possible and a whole school email was sent out in English and Romanian asking for people to keep their distance.

Research from my Birding Club members told us that the owlet is a long-eared,  exhibiting a behaviour known as branching. This is when offspring leave the nest before being able to fly, taking up residence in a nearby branch to spread predation risk. The students were delighted with the bird, showing real concern for its welfare and interest in finding out more about its biology. We located another chick and an adult, perched side-by-side high up in an adjacent pine tree. One of the boys rushed off to grab his sketch book, coming up with a skillful drawing in less than five minutes. I love seeing a different side to students. It’s one of the main joys of running an extra-curricular activity, the less formal structure allowing pupils to express their individual personalities more freely.

We decided to keep knowledge of the location of the other owls within Birding Club to avoid any more disturbances. The boys offered keep watch over the area during break and lunch, thinking up elaborate tales to tell people so they didn’t pass through, including the beautifully simple “Don’t go down there, it smells”. Luckily this morning I found the owlet in a much higher branch in different tree so this wasn’t necessary. Seeing the boys observing the bird completely transfixed, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit envious. I like to believe I feel just as excited by wildlife experiences as I did when I was their age, trying to avoid exaggerating or romanticing childhood events. I was indeed enthralled by the owlet, having never seen a long-eared up close, but looking at the delight on the boys’ faces made me realise I am now harder to please. I either need to build a time machine or see a wild wolf to feel as they did. I am in the right country to see wolves, so I can put the time machine on hold.

On a less positive note, I put a photo of the bird (taken from a sensible distance) on to the school’s daily notices with a plea to keep away from it. Apparently one Year 10 boy asked his form tutor “Why don’t they just kill it?” assuming the owlet must be dangerous. He will be visiting Vacaresti nature reserve with me next month so that will provide a good opportunity to work on his attitude.

owlet 2

A Talk on Rewilding Europe

wisent image

A couple of months ago as part of a Science Week programme, our school welcomed Adrian Hagatis from WWF Romania who came in to talk to a group of thirty students about the work he has been doing in partnership with Rewilding Europe. Adrian drove for three hours to give the talk at no fee, which focused on examples of rewilding in Romania. The talk was well prepared, informative and pitched at an appropriate level. Most of the students in attendance study Biology GCSE or A – level, save for a few keen Key Stage 3 pupils, so it was relevant to the ecology and conservation units that form part of their respective courses. More than this, the talk gave students an impression of the amazing wildlife found within their country of residence and some of the challenges they face. I think too often when reading conservation news and, to a lesser extent, biology syllabi content we are left feeling hopeless at the plight of threatened species.

Adrian’s talk was optimistic, largely focused on the solutions to some of the problems facing species in Romania today, from sturgeon to bison. This left pupils feeling positive but at the same time acutely aware of what they stand to lose as Romanian, European or global citizens without significant action. From reading between the lines of the feedback I received, pupils enjoyed listening to an expert working in the field who could give insights into real examples beyond what a teacher in the classroom could ordinarily tell them!

The school made a donation to WWF Romania to show our appreciation and I have spoken to members of their education department about building a long-term relationship that will involve Sixth Form students going to visit European bison release sites. Two of my Year 12 biologists were particularly inspired by the talk, staying behind to ask Adrian questions about back-breeding eurochs and his opinions on mammoth cloning. He dealt with the questions in a sensitive matter-of-fact way that satisfied the pupils’ curiosity until we had to call it time for next period. I must make sure a trip is planned to take place before this time next year when these pupils will be sitting their final A2 exams.

Given that a lot of our pupils are from powerful, influential Romanian families I hope a few of them took home the message and raised awareness in parents. Perhaps it will shape some of the students’ own decision making after they land or inherit powerful positions themselves. Here’s hoping.

Book Review – The Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies

the cuckoo

I was inspired to pick up this book after seeing a rufous female common cuckoo on my recent trip to the Danube Delta and listening to an enjoyable interview with Nick Davies on The Life Scientific podcast during a hair-raising drive home through an unseasonal blizzard.

Davies is Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge and has studied cuckoos on Wicken Fen since 1985 (the year of my birth, pleasingly). The Cuckoo is a mixture really of Davies’ memoirs as a field ecologist and the science behind brood parasitism. He describes how his experiments have led to interesting findings about cuckoo evolution and the arms race they are engaged in with their hosts. He describes the functions behind aspects of cuckoo morphology and why some specialist sub-species are better at mimicking host eggs than others, this largely being due to the amount of time that the host species has been under significant selective pressure to reject odd-looking eggs. He draws upon lots of fascinating examples of other parasitic bird species and non-parasitic cuckoos from around the world from Japan to West Africa. Davies makes the very valid point that perhaps we should regard UK cuckoos as being an African species given that they spend twice as long living next to lowland gorillas than alongside cattle in Britain! One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the explanation as to why cuckoos roughly resemble sparrow hawks, particularly the presence of barring, having not previously noticed the similarity myself.

Davies’ accessible, clear style of writing reminded me of first reading The Selfish Gene in my second year of university. I remember feeling as though what seemed like lots of stiff, fusty facts suddenly fit neatly together into a beautiful and exciting overarching concept. Before reading The Cuckoo I thought – “Cuckoos. They’re brood parasites that overwinter in Africa”. Reading The Cuckoo, I have learnt that there is a lot more to them!

Davies cites the work of Richard Dawkins and John Krebs a few times in the book which gives a good refresher on the ideas of kin selection. In chapter nine Davies claims to have disproved Dawkins and Krebs’ suggestion that cuckoo chicks rely on manipulation (as opposed to deception at the adult stage) to trick the host species into feeding it. Dawkins and Krebs likened the urges of a reed warbler, for example, to feed any begging mouth within its nest to the compulsion of a drug addict to get their next fix. Davies tells us that his findings show reed warblers will readily accept the chicks of other species besides the cuckoo, such as dunnock, and thus the drug analogy is wrong. Now, perhaps an analogy is not the most robust of ways to present a scientific idea but I think Dawkins and Krebs’ holds firm. The cuckoo chick is manipulating the reed warblers’ instinct, insofar as it is taking advantage of the host’s inability to resit feeding a gaping mouth within its nest, even if dunnocks are not doing so as a life-history trait. I can’t help but think deception would be the wrong word to describe the cuckoo chick’s behaviour because the reed warbler does not necessarily believe the cuckoo is its own genetic offspring but it might simply be so full of hormones that it can’t resist the urge to provide it with food. Davies describes how even now when observing in the field he is perplexed by the sight of a reed warber feeding a cuckoo chick eight times its own size. Maybe I have misunderstood Davies’ argument. Perhaps Dawkins and Krebs’ are correct in their thinking but should move away from the ‘junkie’ analogy to explain it. See what you think.

The book ends with a reflection on how and why the UK cuckoo population has reduced so drastically over the thirty summers during Davies’ observations – a sombre but unsurprising end. I have heard older family members talking fondly about how the call of a cuckoo was a common sign of spring when they were growing up. It makes sense alongside the figures that I was 31 years old and in Romania by the time I had my first good look at one.

If you are looking for a popular science book that is sufficiently evidence and data loaded to back up statements without requiring regular re-reading of paragraphs (Yes, I am thinking of A Brief History of Time) this is an ideal choice. I read one chapter per night and always looked forward to the next. I’ll be adding The Cuckoo to our school’s library collection in the hope that raising awareness in young readers (15+) makes some small contribution towards reversing that downward trend in cuckoo numbers. 4/5

Birding Club: Week 1 – Identifying Common Species

I have attached PowerPoint slides for the first Bird Club session. Students will receive 12 bird outline templates (6 per page) and coloured pencils. If binoculars can’t be provided by school, eBay or Decathlon are good places to look. Students should bring a small notebook, though this will not be required today.

  1. Ask students what birds they already know. They can discuss in pairs and then feedback to the class. Key questions – What does it look like? Have you seen one before? Where did you see it? Is this bird common? Do you have a name for this bird in your first language?
  2. Teacher runs through some key common species, using RSPB chart.
  3. Students jot down a description of Great Spotted Woodpecker, based on image. They then swap and add to partner’s list. Feedback to teacher and list five common points on board. Encourage correct terminology such as crown and nape.
  4. Students watch 5 minute YouTube video and colour-sketch templates so they have rough images of twelve species. You might have to pause.
  5. Students go outside and use their diagrams to identify species around campus. They can tally what they see.
  6. Class feedback. Key questions including, “Did anybody see anything not on the chart?”
  7. Plenary – Using mini-whiteboards, students write the name of birds shown at the end of the presentation. Pupils are given 30 seconds for each slide, no conferring. Count down from five and all students show answers at the same time.

YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amYUDQDtm9E

PowerPoint slides: Birding Club Week 1

Planning a Student Trip to the Danube Delta

I am thinking about taking Year 12 and 13 Biology students to the Danube Delta Biosphere Reservation next academic year. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 6,265km2 wetland mosaic of islands, tributaries and freshwater lakes frequently features in top ten lists of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Whilst this may be a contentious accolade, the Danube Delta certainly boasts a huge wealth of animals with over 300 species of birds and 45 freshwater fish species.

Last week my fiance and I went on a three-day reconnaissance. The weather was terrible, with rain, wind and even heavy snow seriously holding us back from the amount of hiking and birding we had planned. Nonetheless we did manage a day-trip with a guide who turned out to be ideal for school groups. Mihai Baciu is an ex ranger, photographer, multi-linguist and naturalist. He took us out on his boat along with a group of French birders and his assistant for a full day of birding and conversation about everything from golden jackals to cuckoo morphs and the increase in Romanian ecotourism over the past ten years.

The trip cost 50 Euro per person. Lunch was provided, which consisted of a delicious homemade chicken soup followed by Spanish style stew (Mihai’s assistant lived in Spain for sixteen years) washed down with red wine and palinka! I think we’ll opt out of the alcoholic drinks for the school trip, although I can think of a couple of students who would be keen!

A lot of migratory species we were hoping to see hadn’t yet made it due to the unseasonably cold weather, most notably bee-eater and roller, but we still managed to tick off close to fifty including a few firsts including my first good view of a lesser-spotted eagle. Mihai knows the delta and its wildlife like the back of his hand. He is an expert birder, having authored two bird guides specific for the area. Mihai’s passion for wildlife and level of knowledge really shone through. When he overheard me say to my fiance “It actually looks a lot like the Amazon” he proudly responded with “No. The Amazon looks like the Danube”.

I’ll have to have a think about what objectives the trip would aim to achieve. At the moment I think mapping levels of biodiversity through different areas, encompassing varying levels of human influence could be interesting. Measuring dissolved oxygen, pH and nutrient levels using data loggers would add useful data. There’s a side of me that wants the pupils to spend one of the days simply spotting wildlife and enjoying eachothers’ company without any expectation to note down observations or gather data. As AS and A level Biologists, they will develop an appreciation for how lucky they are to have such amazing wildlife just four hours away by car.

I remember paying a visit to Cat Tien national park which was also a four hour drive away from a previous international school I taught at in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, with a view to organising a trip there. I was disappointed with the lack of wildlife, the national park showing severe signs of ’empty forest syndrome’. This site had previously contained a population of Indochinese tigers and is where the last remaining Vietnamese Javan Rhino was killed for its horn in 2010. In hindsight, perhaps I should have ran the trip anyway to show pupils first-hand the problem of illegal poaching and habitat loss. I decided in the end to take the group (Year 10 GCSE Biology) to a TRAFFIC wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of HCMC, which they enjoyed and did learn a lot from.Hopefully there will be no such need for such a decision in Romania for many years to come, especially with the decline in bear ‘entertainment’.

Early May next year is the ideal time to take a group the the Danube Delta. Apparently June-August is out of the question due to extremely high mosquito numbers making it unbearable. I want to inspire pupils, not put them off! Bee-eater and roller will surely have arrived by the start of May so we can observe them nesting alongside one another in sand banks. What a cacophony of colour that will be!

Mihai Baciu’s website can be found here and I fully recommend him: http://www.chettusia.com/

 

Suggested Additions to the Biology Key Stage 4 National Curriculum

Sparrowhawk

My last (and first) blog post was about why I think it would be better, in terms of overall impact and straight-forward application, to bolster natural history content in the biology component of the current national curriculum for science rather than introduce an entirely new GCSE in natural history.

Science GCSE courses are broadly split into two levels – core and extended. The terminology, grade boundaries and grade limits might change slightly but the basic principal is the same. For Cambridge, the examination board that I am currently teaching at GCSE, students can achieve up to a C if they pursue the core route and an A* for extended. Practical assessment is not differentiated. The expectations for factual recall and application are of course greater for students sitting extended papers compared to core but the topics are the same. A core student, for example, would be expected to describe factors that limit rate of photosynthesis where an extended student can explain this in terms of enzyme activity. I think that there should be an intermediate option where the maximum grade is a B but that’s a matter for another day!

The national curriculum provides the basic blueprint for what a course should contain. Examination boards must build around this to create a syllabus that will get the green light from Ofqual, the UK government’s examination and qualifications regulator. As outlined above, core students will follow a basic path that ticks all the curriculum’s boxes without deviating too much; extended courses go into greater detail.

Here is the main point that I would like to see included in the national curriculum for England, possibly replacing the current expectation that students can identify species using a dichotomous key:

Identify and describe twenty two common UK species: four mammal; four bird; three reptile; three amphibian; three fungus; three plant; two fish.

I am sure that lots of people would choose different clades to these and I would be interested to read any contributions. I am not suggesting that these are the best choices but you see the basic idea. This gives examination boards the foundations to build a syllabus section upon, allowing plenty of room to play with for extended students. Rather than prescribe species, I would leave it open for the awarding bodies to decide but given that the point says common UK species, one would expect lots of cross-over.

These would be my preferred choices:

Mammal: Red fox; Common hedgehog; Red squirrel; House mouse

Bird: Great tit; House sparrow; Wood pigeon; Sparrowhawk

Reptile: Adder; Common lizard; Slow worm

Amphibian: Common frog; Smooth newt; Common toad

Fungi: Wood mushroom; Death Cap; Cauliflower fungus

Fish: Three-spined stickleback; Basking shark

Remember that these are just suggestions and the very bare bones of what would then be built upon by the examination boards. Acquiring the ability to name these twenty two species would give around 700,000 students annually a light introduction into natural history and add to their daily lives whether they choose to pursue it further or not. A more detailed extended syllabus could include describing three life-history traits for each species.

You might think that this is all a bit basic and perfunctory. I ask you to remember that this is a straightforward, easy to implement step towards improving young people’s engagement with nature. People reading this will probably have as strong, if not even stronger, passion for wildlife than I do. We must keep in mind that we can’t impose the full extent of this passion upon every 14-16 year old in an English comprehensive school.

Familiarity with common species is important nonetheless, which is why I think improvements should be made. Because the national curriculum prescribes guidelines for the subject matter that all Key Stage 4 non-private and the majority of private school pupils learn, this would impact those who couldn’t care less about a sparrow hawk and budding naturalists alike. We would expect some to delight in the extended natural history content, whilst impacting others only insofar as them taking a bit more notice of wildlife in their local park. I’d like the UK to produce over half a million young people every year who can say “Hey look, a sparrowhawk!” once in a while, whilst keeping options for further study wide open for those more interested post-16.

Developing a GCSE in Natural History: A Bad Idea with Good Intentions

petitionAn online petition calling for the UK government to develop a Natural History GCSE has gained 6,098 signatures at time of writing. 10,000 is the minimum required to qualify for a government response and 100,000 means the topic will be considered for parliamentary debate. The petition has circulated around Twitter, achieving 42 re-tweets as well as garnering support from notable nature author Tony Juniper and Tim Birkhead FRS, professor of behaviour and evolution at the University of Sheffield.

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 how would the creation of this GCSE affect young people’s engagement with nature in England?

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 not all need them.  It crucial that all students learn basic arithmetic so they can check energy bills, they need to 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 the ins and outs of 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. An historian might argue for compulsory education on causes of the Second World War rather than the current set-up of students having to choose History as an option to do so post-14. The petition does not specify whether natural history should be a compulsory subject but Mary Colwell (Creator of the petition) has confirmed in a Twitter reply to me that she thinks it should not be. Why make it optional, if it is needed?

All non-private and the vast majority of privately educated pupils have to take at least one science GCSE course; a third of which is made up of biology content. Most schools offer up to three sciences at GCSE – Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Deciding whether to ‘drop’ a subject (I’ve always discouraged this word as a it sounds a bit arrogant and casual) is a big choice to make aged 13 or 14, due to most schools limiting pupils to around five options.

Choosing to study Biology as a single GCSE as part of the ‘triple science’ route allow students to build more broadly on the skills outlined by Colwell, already learned to an appropriate level throughout Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. All three GCSE Biology syllabi I have taught (Edexcel, Cambridge, AQA) contain significant ecology content, including practical field skills, identification of major clades, food webs, causes of extinction, constructing and using dichotomous keys, and data analysis. One might argue that these topics, strictly speaking, do not constitute natural history. However, these are some of the very skills outlined in the petition’s description. Not to mention ecology, conservation and natural history being interdisciplinary, with huge content cross-over. This begs the question – Would some of these topics get taken out of the Biology curriculum and relocated into Natural History?

If this did happen, we might find non-private schools losing content whilst a few privately educated students and those lucky enough to live in a good catchment area choose to pursue Natural History as a science GCSE. One characteristic of private education is that pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum and so could choose Natural History as their only science, a privilege unavailable to comprehensive school pupils. If an exclusive group dominated access to the GCSE we could see an increase in the perception of interest in nature being a middle to upper class past-time and further alienate the vast majority of pupils from lower down the pecking order. Thus we would see an overall reduction in the UK general population’s natural history knowledge with social class acting a predictor of level.

The ability to provide a more bespoke pupil timetable with enough staffing available to fill teaching slots is an advantage of private schools (Even good comprehensives, free schools and academies can do this to a lesser extent with ever tightening budgets), including international British schools such as the one where I work. New GCSEs are expensive to implement when adding to the list of subjects added. Teacher training, course materials and staff numbers are all major costs. Though I would argue that these are costs worth spending, there simply isn’t the money for most schools to do so without making major cuts elsewhere.

Perversely, in my role as Head of Science, I would look very seriously at adopting a Natural History GCSE as part of the programme offered at my school. I think it would suit a few pupils wonderfully and stimulate further interest in the natural world. Given that a lot of pupils at private schools are the next generation of political and business elites, one could argue that this will have a real impact on future policies because we are influencing the very people who will be deciding upon them in twenty years time. This is a sad current reality that I does by no means sits comfortably and creates quite conflicting ideas in my mind that can be difficult to wrestle with when decision making. Ultimately in my role I decide on what is best for the pupils in my charge.

Colwell gives only the briefest description of what a GCSE in Natural History would entail, in that same second sentence – Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. Here is an excerpt from the Biology Natural Curriculum for England:

  • methods of identifying species and measuring distribution, frequency and abundance of species within a habitat

We can see from the above that her request is already present in the very bare bones of what a student is expected to learn at Key Stage 4 (In England, at least. I’m less familiar with other UK curricula but I am confident they have a similar, if not identical, point). The rest of the petition’s brief is more of an emotional appeal about the importance of nature to our national culture and heritage along with concern about how children are becoming increasingly disconnected from it. Whilst I sympathise with this viewpoint as an individual who loves and worries about nature, creating a GCSE in Natural History is not the answer.

The petition description could also fall into Environmental Science, another subject which contains principles of natural history. I taught this optional GCSE at my first school and it was never popular, usually used to fill a timetable slot when a pupil had sat a science GCSE a year early. Students will sit AQA’s Environmental Science GCSE examinations in England for the final time this summer, with no possibility of re-sit. This is due to Ofqual, the government examinations regulator, deciding the content overlapped too much with other science curricula.

Rather than create an entirely new Natural History course I think it would be far wiser to bolster biology content in current science GCSEs to include the identification some common British species without the use of a key. Being a compulsory subject, comprehensive and academy students have to choose between Core Science, Double Science or Triple Science; for each of which the examination boards’ syllabi must correspond to the science national curriculum. A change to the national curriculum impacts all non-private along with most privately educated students following the regular GCSE path, unlike optional subject content. To put this into perspective, over 600,000 GCSE students sat a compulsory science that included biology as per the national curriculum in 2012; 941 sat Environmental Science. The ability to name common species would uplift every young person’s life, whether they be a middle-class 20 year-old recalling what a lapwing is when reading an article about driven grouse shooting in The Guardian or an at-risk 15 year-old cutting through the local park noticing a sparrow hawk.

The creation of a Natural History GCSE would not, perhaps sadly, prove popular with schools, pupils or parents. It would exclusively attract students who are already interested in nature. If a Natural History GCSE were taught well, the student enjoyed the course, achieved a good pass grade and subsequently wished to pursue the subject into post-16 education, what then? There is no Natural History A-level or International Baccalaureate so they would have to choose Biology as the most suitable option. This means they will have gaps in their knowledge, even if the student takes as many related modules as possible there is still core content on human biology etc. at Key Stage 5. Consequently, he or she would have a lot of catching up to do. A good A-level Biology pass, along with acceptable grades in other subjects studied, would get our student onto a natural history-related degree course. We would impede the student’s chances of getting onto their preferred course by allowing them to skip so much preparatory content at GCSE. Furthermore, who would teach natural history as a stand-alone GCSE subject, assuming there is time available in the school timetable? Answer – Biology teachers, because they have the background to do so!

What a student thinks they would like to study at university aged 13 or 14 is likely to change over the intervening years and teachers need to make sure their horizons stay broad. Perhaps our Combined/Double/Triple GCSE Biology student will go on pursue a Virology B.Sc and end up working on a new vaccine for squirrel pox or avian flu. Or they might become interested in statistics – eventually becoming a financial analyst for an investment firm, their interest in natural history falling by the wayside save for a monthly direct debit to the WWF and an occasional visit to the Natural History Museum. Biology keeps options wide open, whereas a GCSE in Natural History would narrow options too far at too young an age.

Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education: “[In education] ‘what works?’, which is what politicians would love to know about, is the not the right question, because [in education] everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere. The interesting question is ‘under what conditions does this work?’”

The conditions under which a GCSE in natural history would work for a student is if they already had an interest in natural history that they wished to pursue formally and are in the the position to do so. For a non-privately educated student to be in such a position they must have sat their compulsory science GCSE examinations at the end of Year 10 and happen to be lucky enough to attend a school that offered GCSE Natural History – An unlikely set of circumstances dependent upon chance factors such as post code and religion.

I think Mary Colwell truly believes this is a good idea that has the potential to increase public knowledge of natural history, often talking about ‘putting nature back into the heart of education’. Unfortunately, an optional GCSE inaccessible to many  is not likely to achieve these outcomes and might in fact cause a step backwards. It would provide an argument against improving national curriculum content, especially under a Conservative government. Worse, some of the little natural history content currently present could be deleted from future revisions. Watching parliamentary debates has taught me that many Conservative MPs fail to see beyond their own privileged experience. If a GCSE in natural history became available to their children or grandchildren, the assumption might be that the privilege extends to all pupils – “If they want to learn about wildlife, they can study natural history!”  This would plunge us even further into a general population unable to tell the difference between a dunnock and wren, with a bias against those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds.

A few friends have asked why I have taken it upon myself to criticise what seems like a harmless and well-meaning campaign set up by a nice person who is ultimately on the side of nature. I think that as a collective of nature-lovers we are strongest when employing our individual expertise and specialist knowledge towards the common cause – Namely, improved access to wild experiences for future generations. Colwell is a radio producer by profession, not an educational specialist. Her regularly mistaking optional GCSEs as being part of the national curriculum is most telling of this. Now more than ever we need to use our specialisms to apply pressure effectively in the right direction if we are to see real positive change in the near future.

You can find the petition here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/176749

Link to the associated Twitter account: https://twitter.com/curlewcalls

National Curriculum in England for Science: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study