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. All students to 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. 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 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.

In conclusion, 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 for the lack of need to improve national curriculum content (Especially under a Conservative government), perhaps even taking out some of what there already is, plunging us even further into a population unable to tell the difference between a dunnock and wren.

You can find the petition here:

Link to the associated Twitter account:

National Curriculum in England for Science: