The most recent Spectator Schools magazine had an article, Better Nature, which focused on “how to make the new natural history GCSE more worthwhile”. This is a plea for natural history to be focused on plants and animals rather than on fashionable causes such as the need to ‘save the world from catastrophe’ as suggested by Baroness Flotilla Benjamin and others. Those who sit on OCR’s advisory group for the GCSE are familiar with these tensions.

The author, Jim Lawley, writes:

However well-meant such declarations may be, natural history is in fact about identifying and studying plants and animals, not fretting about ‘the plight of our planet’ and ‘how to rescue it’. Worried about what teenagers would in fact be studying, I wrote to the OCR examination board. It thanked me for ‘taking an interest in [its] GCSE in natural history’, noted that it was ‘currently experiencing a high volume of enquiries’ and promised to get back to me ‘as soon as possible’. A year later I’m still waiting.

Time presses, so perhaps instead I can offer the Education Secretary a few suggestions. First, and most important of all, ignore everyone who wants to hijack this new subject to promote their own agenda. Take no notice, for example, of the Royal Meteorological Society, which simply welcomes another opportunity ‘to improve the climate literacy of our young people’.

As the Department for Education recognises: ‘Topics related to climate change already feature across the curriculum at primary and secondary school.’ That may be why two-thirds of young people are reported to feel sad, afraid and anxious. Perhaps stoking their eco-anxiety with even more lessons on sustainability, carbon footprints, declining biodiversity and ‘climate literacy’ is not such a good idea.

Instead, the department could try to improve young people’s mental health by encouraging them to actually do some natural history, to start looking carefully at wildlife with open minds and glad hearts. Developing an attentive response to non-human life might cure some teenagers of their unhealthy obsession with social media and selfies.

The article goes on to discuss a range of people who have contributed to and benefitted from an interest in natural history. These include: Peter James (1930-2014), Cecil Warburton (1854-1958), John Blackwall (1790-1881), John Dovaston (1782-1854), Philip Gosse (1810-1888), Robert Pickard-Cambridge (1828-1917).

These good folk are, as you’ll have noticed, all dead; many of them long dead. Was it not possible to find more modern examples of people who have contributed to and benefitted from an interest in natural history? Well, had Jim Lawley read NAEE’s journal or scrutinised its website, examples would have tumbled out.

The article ends by asking: Why not let our children discover the natural world before expecting them to save it? Will the DfE, when it eventually gets round to actually doing anything about the GCSE, take any notice?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment