Today’s blog is by Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR. He writes in response to an earlier blog on these pages by Melissa Glackin. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the thinking of the Association.
Firstly, I’d like to thank Melissa Glackin for engaging with OCR’s proposals for a Natural History GCSE, for sharing the response of the Environmental Education Research Group and for the constructive way in which she outlines some of the risks and challenges. It is important to us that we hear as wide a range of views as possible.
Introducing a new GCSE to an already crowded curriculum is not straightforward and comes with a great deal of responsibility because of the potential impact it can have on the study choices and experiences of young people.
That is why we conducted a national consultation and having sifted through the thousands of responses received, you can see some of the feedback in our summary of findings report and infographic
We have also created a Strategic Advisory Board, made up of representatives from a wide range of interested organisations (including NAEE), leading experts in the field, practitioners, and, some incredibly insightful and impressive young people. Board members are never afraid to challenge us, or each other and I see no signs of us becoming complacent. We also have a forum especially for consulting with teachers which certainly keeps us grounded in the realities of what is possible in schools.
The recent Dasgupta review (February 2021), authored by Cambridge economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, said “Every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, and to appreciate how it contributes to our lives”. This is something we too agree with, and an important point to get across in responding to Melissa’s comments is that we do not in any way see a GCSE in Natural History as a standalone initiative. There must be elements of the whole curriculum from early years through to key stage 5 and beyond, that build and develop young people’s interest in an understanding of the natural world. We commend the excellent work of the NAEE in signposting and exemplifying opportunities to deliver environment-related topics across the whole curriculum, at all ages and stages of education.
A GCSE in Natural History, even one that is taken by large numbers of students and is fully embedded in the wider curriculum, must not be portrayed as some kind of magic bullet. It doesn’t make a love of the natural environment inevitable.
And on its own, it certainly can’t equip young people with all the skills, knowledge and attitudes they will need when facing the existential threat of the climate emergency. Pupils need a broad and balanced curriculum that delivers all the sciences, the arts, global perspectives, an understanding of politics, the importance of responsible citizenship, critical thinking… the list goes on.
What is becoming increasingly obvious, however, is that Natural History has sufficient distinct content to make it a subject in its own right, but that it also has ingredients that can pull together key strands from across the curriculum in a positive and integrated way. We think this goes some way to mitigating the risk highlighted by Melissa that Natural History could dilute the elements of Natural History in the other sciences, particularly Biology.
This is important when considering the progression opportunities available to young people who will have achieved a GCSE in Natural History. Of course, pupils typically take 9-10 GCSEs, each GCSE representing a relatively small part of the overall timetable, because they are designed to deliver a broad general education. Specialisation in subjects tends to start after the age of 16 with A Levels, often taken these days alongside Applied General Qualifications (more practical qualifications leading to university degrees in more vocational subjects). Some young people will take apprenticeships or one of the new T Levels if they have a firm idea of the future occupation they wish to pursue. Part of OCR’s work, now, is to consult with the custodians of those courses and to explore which ones would most welcome, and offer something relevant and meaningful to, those with a passion for the natural environment.
But as important as these issues are, the most important thing is that we do all that is possible to make Natural History accessible and relevant to all. This means, as an absolute starting point, that schools must be able to deliver all aspects, including fieldwork, wherever they are and however limited their resources are. We must ensure that pupils in urban settings can achieve the qualification by engaging with the nature they can find in their immediate locality for example the identification of flowers/weeds in urban settings and tracing them back to their origins, analysing why they were there and how, along with studying the pollinators they support.
And we need to demonstrate that Natural History is for everyone – that means celebrating a diverse range of naturalists from around the world, from different cultures and periods of history; it means ensuring a diverse input to developing and promoting the qualifications, and it means supporting a global perspective alongside a local one. In other words, we must have a qualification that everyone recognises as being relevant to them and doesn’t get labelled as something for ‘other people’ who are ‘not like us’.
All the challenges and risks outlined are significant and we are not so arrogant as to think we have all the solutions. But with the input and ongoing support and good will of so many people, we think we are in with a good chance of achieving something special. If a GCSE in Natural History can play a part, no matter how small, in inspiring young people, wherever they live, and whatever their background, to develop a passion for nature then it will have been worthwhile.
Paul Steer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org