Looking back at my childhood I now consider it a privilege that I was given multiple opportunities to connect with the natural world. Early memories include trips out from Sheffield to the Peak District with my Nan and Grandad, my Nan wearing her high shoes to feed the ducks at Derwent reservoir; or a bird-twitching teacher who had us all conducting starling surveys from the bus as we travelled to swimming lessons – resulting in my Observer book of birds and some tremendous artwork (or so I thought at the time!).
Learning to nurture nature
But for many young people this personal connection to nature is absent. Declining opportunities to be in, experience and learn about the natural world are leading to a ‘disconnection’ crisis; many of our younger generation have had little or no experience of even just being in nature.
Then a revelation came from the most unexpected of sources: the coronavirus lockdown. Every moment outside felt more precious. Parents and carers made the most of the allotted ‘one exercise session’ a day to walk with their children in local parks and green spaces. With indoor venues off-limits, young people took every opportunity to socialise outdoors; some noticing nature for the first time. Of course, this has not been the picture for all; gaping inequalities became clear depending on whether you had access to local green space or a garden, live in an urban or rural area, a flat or a house, or were able to socialise with extended family and friends.
We now understand more than ever that a thriving, wildlife-rich environment benefits our physical and mental health. Those with access to nature and green spaces are more active, have greater mental resilience, are able to take informed risks about being outside and have better all-round health. At the same time, the need for wildlife and wild places in our lives is increasing, to help us stay well and recover from illness – particularly when it comes to mental health and illnesses associated with obesity or loneliness.
So how is our education system relevant to this, and, what will the formal study of a GCSE in Natural History bring about?
Our education system is the foundation of equal and inclusive access to a ‘learning journey’. We have an opportunity to give every child within secondary education the chance to experience and learn about nature, countering the growing disconnection between young people and the natural world.
As Jill Duffy, Chief Executive of OCR, explained: “We think there's a gap in the curriculum that isn't encouraging a connection with the natural world. At the same time, we know that young people are very much engaged in the debate on the environment and they understand what their role should be and could be in protecting it for the future.”
The Wildlife Trusts have been supporting the development of this GCSE, recently taking part in a consultation that OCR, our UK exam board, launched in response to the call for developing a GCSE in Natural History. This is on the back of a campaign led by naturalist Mary Colwell, who has long been concerned about the lack of nature and natural history in curriculum content and the associated learning opportunities about our natural world.
The level of engagement in the consultation was great, with OCR receiving over two thousand responses for the main consultation from a variety of interested parties including environmental and education organisations, teachers and parents. OCR also ran a bespoke consultation for young people and received 200 responses. Since the consultation, I have continued to work with OCR as part of a Strategic Advisory Group that includes Mary, the Natural History Museum, Field Studies Council, the Eden Project, Teach the Future and many others to develop the purpose and themes of such a qualification further.
Creating a Natural History GCSE is just part of the solution
Understanding our place in the natural world — what this world holds for us, how we understand it and how we then ‘nurture’ our world — is largely dependent on making real live connections and then having opportunities to learn more about it. The hope is we can help create a platform for curious, passionate and critically thinking students who want to look after the natural world and sustain the benefits it provides.
However, creating a Natural History GCSE is just part of the solution, as Dom Higgins, Head of Health and Education for The Wildlife Trusts, explains: “We recognise that learning in and about nature must be part of the journey that leads to children choosing a natural history GCSE – and this means transforming the way we educate our young children – throughout their learning, whatever the setting. In addition to this, a programme of ‘greening’ and ‘blueing’ the wider curriculum is being considered by OCR alongside the development of the GCSE. This could include reviewing existing qualifications to explore the potential for topics relevant to the natural world, greening the content of vocational and technical qualifications and the creation of new subjects with aspects of environmentalism at their core.”
At The Wildlife Trusts, we believe everyone should have the opportunity to experience the joy of wildlife in daily life – so in addition to the introduction of a Natural History GCSE, we’re calling on government to recognise the multiple benefits of nature for children – and ensure that at least one hour per school day is spent outdoors learning and playing in wild places. Each generation has less contact with the outdoors than the preceding one. We owe it to all young people to reverse this trend – for their sakes, for our sakes and for nature’s sake.
More on OCR Natural History GCSE:
More information on nature connection among adults and children can be found in: