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:

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:


Suggested Additions to the Biology Key Stage 4 National Curriculum


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. 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: