A Natural History GCSE would offer young learners a unique opportunity to observe and engage with the natural world, through the study of flora & fauna, life in the early world, human impacts on the world and much, much, more.
The importance and value of the connection between humans and nature is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. Natural England reported earlier this year, in their ‘Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment summary’ (2020), on the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being. They recognised that nature connectedness, a psychological construct that measures an individual’s relationship to the natural world (something that is malleable, changing over time in response to different experiences), has a positive relationship with people’s eudaimonic wellbeing, as well as their pro-environmental behaviours (PEB’s). The study showed that respondents with a high nature connectedness were twice as likely to report Household PEB’s such as recycling, choosing local & seasonal produce, taking sustainable transport options and encouraging PEB’s in others.
Furthermore, respondents with high nature connectedness were 1.8 times more likely to report conservation PEB’s such as taking action to care for the environment, being a member of an environmental group or donating their time or money.
The Natural England summary (2020) also identified a clear dip in levels of nature connectedness around early adolescence with the lowest levels seen in 13-15 and 16-18 year olds. This GCSE could provide an opportunity to prevent the decline in nature connectedness and boost teenage well-being.
This summer Natural England were commissioned to research the perspectives of children and their nature relationships during Covid-19 (2020b). The survey highlighted the negative impacts on children’s wellbeing and mental health, with almost half (48%) of the 1,501 8-15 year olds questioned, reporting that being worried about catching/spreading Covid-19 had actually stopped them from spending more time outside. A saddening 60% of the young people surveyed had spent less time outdoors since the start of coronavirus. The results also support the positive role of nature in wellbeing with 83% of the interviewed children agreeing that being in nature made them very happy. However, environmental concern was high among the respondents with 82% agreeing that they would like to do more to protect the environment. There appears to be an appetite in young people to build a relationship with nature, perhaps studying GCSE Natural History could fill this gap. It was recognised that asking children directly about their experiences is important in providing a sense of ownership, a voice, about the natural environment and we know, from the OCR consultation that young people, overwhelmingly, agree with the purpose of a GCSE in Natural History, with 94% of those young people surveyed being interested in taking or having had an opportunity to take the proposed qualification.
Professor Michael Reiss, from the Institute of Education at UCL, is quoted in the Wildlife Trusts introduction to their ‘Nature nurtures children’ report (2019) as saying that “Each generation seems to have 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.”
My discussions with the current cohort of training PGCE Secondary Geography teachers at the University of Worcester, whose course this year has included approaches to building nature connectedness, have very much welcomed the proposal of this innovative GCSE.
“I believe that studying Natural History in depth would give students a much better understanding and realisation of the effect humanity is having on the loss of life on planet Earth.” Rory McLaughlin, Trainee Teacher
“I think it is a brilliant idea that should have been in the curriculum a long time ago - it provides a link between History and Geography as two interlinking disciplines which is only becoming more apparent in today's contemporary world. A GCSE in Natural History would give students the knowledge and respect for the world and environment we live in, giving them an opportunity to be appreciative to our planet and our influence in society.” Holly Seymour, Trainee Teacher
At a time of recognised, nationally declared, Climate Emergency (BBC, 2019), our young learners deserve to have the opportunity to build a deeper understanding of life on earth, how it has evolved and how our species can conserve and protect it, through the study of Natural History. As homo sapiens realises the existential environmental crisis that we have created for ourselves and our children, the study of Natural History offers, not only an opportunity to support eudiamonic wellbeing, but perhaps also the “joy and solace” (Guardian, 2020) that can be found in nature, and crucially the development of a generation who understand humankinds impact on the world and seek solutions to the damage we have caused.
In the words of one of our best loved conservationists, David Attenborough:
“No one will protect what they don't care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced”
The new OCR Natural History GCSE could provide those crucial experiences that build care, compassion and, hopefully, positive action for the natural world.
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