Full marks for new school subject announced today

Full marks for new school subject announced today

The new natural history GCSE will tackle the biggest issue of our time – the loss of nature and our connection to it

Today we’re celebrating as a new school subject is announced – a natural history GCSE – one which will enrich our lives and help us tackle the biggest issue of the day: the nature and climate crisis. The worsening of these interlinked emergencies is entirely avoidable – and education has a major role to play in this.

Earlier this month, in response to the Independent Panel on Climate Change 'Mitigation of Climate Change' report, Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, said that “we are on a fast track to climate disaster; with extinction of a million species and warming of double the 1.5C goal.” The science is clear: we have to do things differently – and fast.

To do this, we must shape new leaders who understand that thriving eco-systems are central to our prosperity and the survival of the planet. But how do we foster a new generation of decision makers that will pioneer a better future?  

A teenage girl is looking for birds through binoculars, over a field surrounded by trees

A GCSE in natural history with a focus on protecting the planet is undeniably a great start. A qualification that gets under the skin of the natural world, that engenders a deeper understanding and love for the natural world, is desperately needed.

For the first time, more pupils that ever before will have the opportunity to develop an in-depth knowledge of, and real-life experience of animals, plants, trees, insects, fungi. Gaining vital and transferable skills in observation, identification, classification and data gathering, the GCSE will teach pupils to apply this knowledge to real world solutions – to restore natural systems, adapt to climate change and re-wild our towns, cities and the countryside.

This is a qualification that complements existing subjects like geography but takes young minds further and deeper into the connections between humans, the evolution of the natural world and its critical role in regulating the planet. Pupils will develop a deeper understanding of the inter-connectedness of the natural world.

A teenage girl hugs a tree with her eyes closed and a smile on her face

© Eleanor Church

There are other huge gains too. Vast amounts of research shows that time spent learning in nature will give pupils a healthy habit that can last a lifetime.

But it’s not enough to wait until pupils reach GCSE age – the journey must start earlier and be one that all pupils embark on, not matter which subjects they study. Research by the University of Derby pinpoints when teenagers fall out of love with nature – they found that young people’s connection to nature drops sharply from the age of 11 and doesn’t recover until they are 30. We cannot afford this gap at such a critical time in young people’s lives.

We want to see children given opportunities to spend at least an hour a day learning outside, and for nature and climate education to be embedded across all subjects and at all levels. This is crucial at a time when children’s interaction with nature is declining, with 60% of young people spending less time outdoors since the start of the pandemic.

School children at a Wildlife Trust reserve

Helena Dolby, Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust

We at The Wildlife Trusts look forward to continuing our work as part of the Strategic Advisory Group for the GCSE, with Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations, and Cambridge University Press & Assessment. We will continue to work with teachers and respond to their needs through initiatives like our ground-breaking Nature Friendly Schools programme which has enriched the lives and mental health of teachers and children in the most deprived areas. 

My colleague, Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts has said: “I hope studying natural history will encourage students to fall in love with nature and inspire a new and diverse generation of naturalists, conservationists, and scientists. This GCSE should become a springboard to a lifelong connection with nature and to green careers. Learning about wildlife, plants, and our impact on the planet are vital educational tools for the 21st century.”

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to naturalist Mary Colwell for tirelessly championing this new subject – it is a pivotal moment for education, and one which could change all our futures for the better. Let’s make the new GCSE part of a bigger change to education – one that puts nature and outdoor learning at its heart.