There has been an interesting idea circulating on Twitter this week. It has been started by the brilliant Mary Colwell, somebody I happen to have huge respect and admiration for. It’s not a new idea, but it remains an interesting one. But is it the right solution to the problem?
The text of the petition (available here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/176749) says:
Re-engagement with Britain’s natural history has never been more urgent. Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. It is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today
There is little in that to dispute. While there is a great core of young naturalists emerging, and they are passionate and engaged, the general picture is of a youth disengaged with nature. This is dangerous from a conservation perspective, because how can you care about something if you are not aware of it?
So on the face of it, a natural history GCSE makes a lot of sense. However, I do have some serious doubts.
Any elective subject, as this would be, will likely only draw in those who are already interested. So while it’d be great for the afore-mentioned young naturalists to have a qualification they connected with, it wouldn’t really connect with the students who lack the skills mentioned. You are preaching to the converted.
For schools, timetabling and priorities mean it will in many cases end up an afterthought. The government have prioritised certain subjects and areas, this would not be in there, and as such it would be a lower priority for the schools.
But my biggest concern is how to ensure the teaching resource is there. Because a badly funded, badly taught subject is more likely to do harm than good. Schools already have significant issues getting sufficient numbers of qualified teachers even for mainstream science subjects, and this would be magnified for a field where employment opportunities would be fewer.
Working in museums, one of the most common refrains heard is that school put people off science. Being taught by people who lacked passion, experience, knowledge, and enthusiasm, working to a curriculum where they were just ticking boxes, damaged their relationship with the subject*. This would be a real risk with a natural history GCSE.
So my personal feeling is that it’s the wrong solution to the problem. The right solution is to look at the example set by forest and seaside schools, and embed natural history more carefully within other curricula, to encourage schools to provide more outdoor learning where the natural history skills mentioned above are developed through cross-curricular learning.
All that said, I have signed the petition. Because I feel it is worth trying to get this debate had by politicians.
*For the avoidance of doubt, let me just be clear that there are thousands of brilliant teachers out there who do teach with passion, experience, knowledge and enthusiasm, across all subjects. As there would be for a natural history qualification. But we must be honest and acknowledge the real and present issues too.