GCSE Natural History FAQs

Q: What is Natural History?

Natural History focuses on understanding the natural world in all its richness and diversity. Through observational study and investigation, natural history seeks to understand the complexities and interconnectedness of life on Earth in contrasting habitats. Natural History explores how our natural world has been shaped and how it continues to change, both by natural processes and through human intervention.

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: Who have you worked with?

A long list of amazing supporters, almost too many to mention, ranging from the BBC Studios to the Woodland Trust. Check out the list of stakeholders here

Q: How have you worked with supporters/stakeholders?

  • After Mary Colwell first approached us, we ran a consultation in June 2020. Over 2000 people took part in our survey and over 200 young people participated in a dedicated student survey. We really wanted to hear the views of young people themselves and have talked with individual students and with the NUS and Teach the Future. Based on consultation responses, we submitted our ideas of what a new GCSE in Natural History could look like to the DfE in late 2020.
  • We also set up a Stakeholder Advisory Board which has met regularly since (with representatives from organisations such as the National History Musuem, Wildlife Trusts etc).
  • We’ve regularly communicated with many subscribers via our GCSE Natural History newsletter. We set up our dedicated website to keep people informed of our work.
  • We’ve taken part and hosted events on environmental education and greening the curriculum.
  • We’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and generosity of everyone involved and would like to thank them.

Q: What makes Natural History distinctive? Other GCSEs like Geography or Biology cover natural history

This rigorous qualification will allow study of the depth, breadth and context of the natural world in a way that other GCSEs do not. It will complement and be distinct to qualifications in, for example, Geography or Biology, and this new GCSE has been designed to do precisely that. A GCSE in Natural History will include developing skills of observation, monitoring, analysis and reporting which supports students to develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of the natural world, including its fragility and interdependencies. This will involve active outdoor engagement, including of students’ local wildlife and ecosystems, whether they live and study in urban or rural environments.

In GCSE Natural History, students will not just learn general definitions of habitats and ecosystems, they look at specific habitats, flora and fauna in depth and the interrelationships between specific examples. In GCSE Natural History, students actually explore the natural world at a local level so they could name, classify and understand organisms – they do not merely look at ecosystems and processes like pollution as case studies; it’s a richer, more in-depth learning experience underpinned by engagement with/observation of the natural world.

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 will the content of the new GCSE be/Can we see your proposal?

Thanks to our amazing supporters, and the consultation exercise we ran in 2020, we have a strong vision for what a GCSE in Natural History could look like, and we shared that vision with the DfE. A consultation process will decide the final subject content and how the GCSE will be assessed. [For commercial reasons, we can’t share every detail of our proposal with you but our vision is to:

  • encourage detailed study of specific organisms (wildlife) and the environments in which they live.
  • develop students’ knowledge and understanding of the forms, functions and behaviours of wildlife through study of real plants and animals across a range of settings.
  • develop students’ appreciation and understanding of critical interdependencies and relationships with other species, and between specific organisms and their environment, locally, nationally and internationally.
  • help equip young people with the knowledge to help tackle and better understand future environmental challenges.]

Q: Will students just learn about climate change?

It’s about much more than climate change, though by understanding the vital interconnected nature of the natural world (of which we are, crucially a part) students will better understand why climate change is such a massive threat for us all. A new GCSE would give young people the skills, understanding and knowledge of nature that is currently missing from the curriculum. We know students are passionate about their environment. A new GCSE could help them to better understand and be able to protect the world around them, but it could support their future studies at A Level, at university-level and in careers in rapidly growing ‘green’ industries.

Q: When will a new GCSE Natural History be taught in schools?

Subject to work with DfE and Ofqual and accreditation of a new qualification it could be taught from September 2025. We appreciate a new subject needs a lot of support for teachers so they can be confident to deliver this exciting qualification. We are familiar with how to set up the right framework of support for teachers of a new GCSE based on our last development of a brand new GCSE (Computer Science). There will be a lot of professional support for the development and teaching of programmes, including from OCR (and other exam boards if they choose to), and key support such as the Natural History Museum, Field Studies Council and The Wildlife Trusts and their networks. In both rural and urban areas, organisations are keen to support schools in design and delivery. See our simple timeline.

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: How would teachers be supported delivering a new GCSE?

We provide a package of teacher support and training for all our qualifications. A very important part of our activity will be creating support and resources that teachers need to teach a brand new qualification. We’ve been talking to a lot of teachers and to publishers already.

Q: Will OCR be the sole provider of a new GCSE?

Other exam boards will also be able to offer GCSEs in Natural History if they choose to do so.

Q: What happens next?

It is the DfE who make final decisions about new qualifications. In terms of creating a new qualification, a consultation process will take place [which has just been announced]. Normally the DfE consults on subject matter and our regulator Ofqual consults on the assessment arrangements. We will follow the process working closely with DfE, Ofqual, teachers and all stakeholders, and look forward to being successful in realising our vision in a new GCSE.

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.