GCSE Natural History FAQs

Q: Where did the idea for a Natural History GCSE come from?

Mary Colwell approached us in 2019 to discuss her campaign to address a gap in education content in relation to Natural History. Mary had gathered over 10,000 signatures on a UK Parliament Petition from schools, environmental organisations and individuals, in support of a development in the secondary school curriculum. Since then we have been working closely with Mary, the Natural History Museum, The Wildlife Trusts, The Linnean Society, Field Studies Council and others to explore the purpose, design and delivery of such a Natural History GCSE. Visit our website to hear the podcast discussion between OCR Chief Executive - Jill Duffy and Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development for Cambridge Assessment.

Q: Why have you called this proposed new qualification GCSE Natural History?

We have explored different titles but keep coming back to this one as we believe it captures the relationship between nature, the environment and society.

Q: How do you develop a new GCSE?

We have had conversations with a wide range of stakeholders and have set up a Strategic Advisory Board to start the process of developing a proposal around this new qualification. Our Board has acted as a forum to seek insight and advice in the development of our consultation, which focuses on a draft definition and themes. It is an important step in helping to shape early thinking about what a Natural History GCSE might look like – it will help us refine and shape the content of the qualification, anticipate and overcome difficulties in implementation, and be a litmus test of wide support. This is the first step in a process that will also need to reflect the views of Ofqual, the qualifications regulator in England, and the Department for Education, because the content and design of GCSEs is carefully controlled through legislation.  We want to hear views from as many people as possible.

Q: Which Ebacc bucket would a GCSE in Natural History fall into?

The EBacc is a combination of GCSE subjects, including a language, that offer an important range of knowledge and skills to young people.  The EBacc is:

  • English language and English literature
  • maths
  • the sciences
  • history or geography
  • a language

It would be for the Department for Education to determine whether or not a GCSE in Natural History would be part of the EBacc. 

Our proposed GCSE is distinctly different from other subjects, although there are elements of science and geography.  If a GCSE in Natural History was to be included in the EBacc, the Department for Education would determine which ‘bucket’ it would be part of.

There are a number of GCSEs that are not part of the EBacc which students can study for, often in addition to EBacc subjects. 

Q: How would the GCSE fit into a packed curriculum?

It’s important that there is a broad and balanced curriculum, this GCSE would give students a further choice of subject to study.  We believe that currently there is a critical gap in the curriculum that a GCSE in Natural History would fill.  It would help students to connect with and understand the complexities of the natural world in a way that currently no other GCSE offers them the opportunity to do and the case for this has become even stronger given the current pandemic. The lockdown of the UK in response to the COVID-19 crisis has taught us how important it is to interact with and learn about Natural History, not only for our own mental and physical health, but also for the health of the planet.

Q: What content would be studied?

We want to be sure that a Natural History GCSE would offers something distinctive to existing GCSEs and would be deliverable in schools/colleges. For example we feel it should offer focussed, intensive field study of whole organisms in context., as well as exploration of our relationship with nature, including the way that art, literature and music have been shaped by, and shape, that relationship. This would mean it provides a unique contribution to the national qualifications offer. We would welcome your thoughts on what content should be studied so please do let us know. We would love to hear your thoughts on content so please do engage with our consultation.

Q: How would the GCSE tackle the topic of climate change?

Our consultation findings showed that both adults and young people felt climate change should be an important part of this GCSE.  It is up to the Department for Education to determine subject content, but it would be our intention for climate change to be an important element of our GCSE specification.  It would be our hope that having studied our GCSE, students would feel better prepared to engage in the climate crisis debate and help protect the natural world.

Q: Would there be coursework?

We think there is a need for this GCSE to have a clearly defined outdoor study/practical activity but it is too early to say what form this would take and it would be subject to Ofqual conditions should this new GCSE be approved.

Q: How would schools be able to factor in field studies in the middle of timetabling for other GCSEs?

We believe that outdoor learning and the opportunity to engage in practical work would be an important part of this GCSE.  We know that schools have busy timetables. We would want to make sure that the practical element is accessible to all whether in a rural or urban setting so that it can take place in your local school area, ensuring it is flexible enough to be incorporated into the school timetable.  We would welcome any feedback from teachers on this so please do get in contact with any thoughts.

Q: Who would have the opportunity to study this GCSE?

We want it to be available as a choice for all Key Stage 4 students; it will be as relevant to urban schools as it will be to rural schools. It would ill be an additional choice for students, and interest to date has come from all segments of the education system, and all parts of the country. It would engage with the realities of the contemporary rural environment as well as the way that nature plays out in our urban settings.

Q: Would this GCSE be available to people of all ages?

GCSEs can be taken by students of all ages.  You would need to enrol with a registered educational provider who offers the GCSE.

Q: Who would teach this GCSE?

We know that Biology and Geography teachers would be well placed to deliver this qualification, but we have also had interest from other subject teachers. We are already working with the Natural History Museum, The Wildlife Trusts, The Linnean Society, and the Field Studies Council and other key stakeholders to plan professional development and support to help with the design of programmes and delivery.

Q: When would this GCSE be available?

Any new GCSE needs approval from Ofqual and the Department for Education. We are aiming for first teaching in September 2023.

Q: How would teachers be supported delivering a new GCSE?

We provide a package of teacher support and training for all our qualifications.  Given that this would be a new GCSE, we are committed to providing even more resources and support than normal and are already planning the different types of support that we would provide. We are discussing ideas for support on specific aspects of the qualification with expert organisations and other key stakeholders.

Q. How do I keep up to date with progress?

Keep up to date with our proposed GCSE in Natural History and other OCR Natural History news by signing up our email newsletter and updates. You can read back issues of our Natural History newsletter here.