Today’s post is by Elsa Lee of the University of Cambridge who sits on OCR’s advisory board for its proposed GCSE in Natural History.

I had the pleasure of representing NAEE in a discussion about the proposals from OCR to introduce Natural History as a new optional subject at GCSE.  The initiative is the brainchild of Mary Colwell and the idea is being developed by Tim Oates, Jill Duffy, Paul Steer and Ruth Carter at OCR.  It is part of a suite of proposals for greening the curriculum that OCR is undertaking.  Stakeholder engagement has been very impressive, demonstrated by the range of organisations represented on the board, and this is a testament to the positive light in which this initiative is being received.  The Strategic Advisory Board that I sit on representing NAEE comprised 13 member organisations including representatives from the Natural History Museum, Eco-Schools England, Teach the Future and many more besides.

Our first meeting looked at the drafted definition, purpose, scope, knowledge and skills for the proposed curriculum and provoked a stimulating and wide-ranging conversation.   Highlights of the conversation included a lively discussion about the interdisciplinarity of the course and the need to add the arts (including poets and visual artists) alongside the humanities and sciences to make the programme as inclusive as possible of the way in which Natural History has been experienced and practised over the centuries.

Another comment that stood out for me was made by the young Teach the Future representatives who highlighted the need to ensure that the course includes an awareness of the differing ways in which people around the world can be said to have contributed to the problems that life on Earth is facing; and we might add to that the differing ways in which people relate to the world around them.

Finally, during the discussion Mary Colwell made the very important point that whilst the study of Natural History has to represent an awareness of human impact, it has to be wary of becoming a political campaign tool for behavior change towards sustainable living.  Here I am reminded of how David Attenborough’s early works had been criticized for their neutrality on the question of human impacts.  I have always admired him for this because it allowed an untainted love for the natural world to develop through watching and experiencing his television programmes and books; one that was neither burdened by an overwhelming sense of guilt, or doom laden.  For me it is this potential for affective engagement, with the beauty, wonder and savageness of the world around us, more so than the idea that we would change our behaviour if only we knew about what we were doing, that has the capacity to heal not just Earth’s biome, but also ourselves.  I am also reminded of Bill Scott’s reflections [1] on the fundamental purpose of schooling and holding onto the sense that schools are, above all else, places of learning.  The proper, holistic study of Natural History has the capacity to enable us to heal inwardly and outwardly; alongside being a return to learning through the in-depth study of a subject that, some might argue, matters to us as much as mathematics and literature.


Elsa is Executive Vice Chair of NAEE and can be contacted at:


[1] Scott, W. (2009) Judging the Effectiveness of a Sustainable School: a brief exploration of the issues.  Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 3 pp 33-39.

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