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.