Could a natural history GCSE reconnect young people with nature?

Lucy Purdy

Experts agree that children have far too little contact with the natural world. Could lessons about flora and fauna – a natural history GCSE – be the answer?

In a bid to reconnect young people with nature, a petition has been launched calling for the introduction of a GCSE in natural history. It urges the government to develop the qualification in order to ‘make nature part of British society again’.

“Re-engagement with Britain’s natural history has never been more urgent,” reads the petition, which has been proposed by radio and TV producer Mary Colwell. “Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. It is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today.”

Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife

Colwell is a keen advocate of nature conservation, and last year made a solo 500-mile walk from the west coast of Ireland to East Anglia in order to publicise the plight of the endangered curlew. As a result of her efforts, the Irish government established a taskforce to try to protect the bird.

Colwell describes her reaction to the first State of Nature Report, published in 2013, which reported that 60 per cent of wildlife had declined over the last 50 years. Out of those species assessed, one in ten faced extinction, it reported. “Much loved creatures were slipping away,” wrote Colwell. “Hedgehogs, skylarks, lapwings, cornflowers, curlew, common lizards, many butterflies, all of them edging closer to the edge of the abyss.


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“We are in a new territory, British society has never been so hands off and ignorant when it comes to nature. We can no longer name common species or know the basics of their life cycles and what they need to survive. It is therefore not surprising that as nature thins out we hardly notice. It is a perfect storm. As we lose species we lose interest.”

In response, Colwell proposes a syllabus focusing not on biological processes but about observing and recording nature through the seasons, an amateur-naturalist tradition which was once commonplace in the UK.

“Britain’s reputation for recording its natural history was unsurpassed anywhere in the world,” writes Colwell. “Those skills are disappearing as new generations are increasingly disconnected. The UK also has outstanding nature writing, art, poetry, film and radio. It has always been integral to our culture and heritage.”

We are in a new territory, British society has never been so hands off and ignorant when it comes to nature

If the petition reaches 10,000 signatures, the government is required to respond to it. And 100,000 signatures will require it to be debated in parliament. At the time of going to press, almost 7,000 people had signed the petition which expires on 9 July.

In 2015, authors including Margaret Atwood and Michael Morpurgo joined forces to protest nature-related words being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. The likes of ‘acorn’ and ‘catkin’ were dropped to make room for words such as ‘broadband’ and ‘cut and paste’.

And last year, it was revealed that three quarters of UK children now spend less time outside than prison inmates do. The time spent playing in parks, woods and fields has shrunk, and a fifth of the children did not play outside at all on an average day, the Dirt is Good poll found.


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