Last week, the DfE formally announced that the Natural History GCSE proposed by OCR will go-ahead. In this post, Melissa Glackin, an NAEE Fellow, shares the response from the Environmental Education Research Group at King’s College London. This is a slightly updated post that was originally published in 2020 when OCR was consulting on its proposals. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed are the authors’ and not necessarily those of NAEE.
We welcome an initiative that ‘aims to offer young people the opportunity to engage with nature, as well as give environmental issues more prominence in the curriculum’. [i] Indeed, we would suggest such aims are long overdue: our research has identified that the current provision of environmental education in formal schooling in England is weakly supported by national policies and examination qualifications.[ii] Further, we have documented that the lack of a clear ideological vision for environmental education has led to the ‘patchy and restricted’ coverage of environment-related issues. However, we do not believe that the introduction of another ring-fenced school subject and qualification pathway is the way to achieve the aims of a more prominent position for environmental issues. Moreover, we contend that the introduction of a Natural History GCSE will ultimately lead to environmental education being siloed, thus much reducing the students’ exposure to such a vital discipline.
Below, we briefly set out our position. Drawing upon our own research, we point towards possible alternative methods to collectively achieve a shared vision of supporting more young people to develop a deep and lasting relationship with nature.
1) Integrating the skills and values of natural history into the curriculum
We have previously argued that the study of natural history can provide young people with the inspiration to develop the knowledge, skills, reasoning abilities and values that enable them to, (1) actively participate in discussions and initiatives relating to highly complex environmental issues and, (2) to advocate for socially just action in the face of issues that they will encounter over the course of their lives.[iii]
But such skills are too important to be sequestered into a single subject. The existing school subjects of biology and geography arguably provide a natural home for natural history: both currently provide opportunities for young people to engage with the more-than-human natural world and explore environmental issues. On exploring the proposed themes for the Natural History GCSE, we note that there is a significant overlap with current biology and geography GCSE curricula. We assert that the introduction of a new Natural History GCSE may prompt the subsequent reduction of environmental content in biology and geography on the basis that subject bodies are generally averse to duplication. Currently, all students up to the end of KS4 engage in biology education, and 50% of students study GCSE geography. If key environmental content was moved to the optional subject of Natural History, the numbers of young people studying in, about and for nature would be much, much reduced. Further, the reality of school contexts, with financial pressures, staffing constraints and timetable limitations, poses a significant challenge for anyone seeking to introduce a new GCSE. Only a few schools will have the resources to adopt a new subject, and in this way, we argue that there is the very real potential for Natural History GCSE to become an option that is available to only a limited and privileged few.
Rather than call for a new GCSE, we are advocating that effort be directed towards developing and promoting new schemes of work for both biology and geography, at both KS3 and GCSE level, which take as their foundation key Natural History themes. We note that the KS3 geography curriculum, for example, provides schools with a significant degree of autonomy and flexibility in the way that the curriculum is implemented and enacted. Schemes which support many of the themes outlined in the OCR proposal could be readily adopted and delivered to students within the subject of geography and also within science.
2) The need for environmental advocacy and action
Along with many global figures and natural historians, we have strongly urged that the skills and values related to environmental action, advocacy and activism be placed front and centre in young people’s learning in order to ensure that they acquire the capabilities to respond to global issues in their immediate and longer-term futures.[iv] Here again, we point to the need for all students to gain such capabilities. We also suggest that a Natural History GCSE would inevitably foreground written assessment structures over the more practical skills of advocacy and responsible actions for the wider environment. Moreover, we note that the Natural History GCSE, as currently proposed, appears to reinforce an anthropocentric view of the natural world as a context or resource that is to be learned about as distinct from humankind. A position also evident in the current biology and geography curricula.ii In addition, we note the UK-centric perspective of the proposals. In advocating for the greater incorporation of natural history content across the curriculum, we would call for the inclusion of global perspectives and the recognition of human culpability for environmental destruction at varying temporal and spatial scales.[v] [vi]
Environmental Education Research Group, King’s College London – July 2020
Melissa Glackin, Senior Lecturer in Science Education
Heather King, Reader in Science Education
Elizabeth Rushton, Lecturer in Geography Education
Kate Greer, Research Associate & PhD candidate
[ii] Glackin, M., & King, H. (2018). Understanding Environmental Education in Secondary Schools in England: Perspectives from Policy (Report 1). London: King’s College London. https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/101862531/EnvironmentalReport1_2018pdf.pdf
[iv] Glackin, M., & King, H. (2020). Take Stock of Environmental Education in England – the what, the where and the why. Environmental Education Research, 26(3), 305-323. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2019.1707513
[v] Greer, K. (2020). Governmentalities of climate change education: perspectives from policy and position-holders (Forthcoming, unpublished doctoral dissertation). King’s College London, UK.
[vi] Rushton, E. A. C. (2019). Increasing environmental action through climate change education programmes that enable school students, teachers and technicians to contribute to genuine scientific research. In W. Leal Filho, & S. L. Hemstock (Eds.), Climate Change Management (pp. 507-523). (Climate Change Management). SpringerLink. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-32898-6_28