‘Nature deserves better than resignation and negativity’

Mary Colwell

Mary Colwell is the driving force behind a petition to urge the government to develop a GCSE in natural history. She explains why she believes the qualification could address conservation apathy

I would like you to sign a petition for a GCSE in natural history – and here is why.

The idea for a GCSE in natural history came to me while chatting with Tony Juniper back in 2011. Tony then wrote a piece for the Guardian, and I produced a flyer to sell the idea, and wrote a blog. Despite a flurry of interest nothing much happened, and I became distracted by life.

Mary Colwell is a media producer and writer, specialising in environmental issues

Then, in 2013, the first State of Nature Report was published. It sent shockwaves around the media. It showed that 60 per cent of wildlife has declined over the last 50 years, and out of those species assessed, one in ten faces extinction. Much-loved creatures were slipping away – hedgehogs, skylarks, lapwings, cornflowers, curlew, common lizards, many butterflies, all of them edging closer to the edge of the abyss.

There is often a spurt of activity following announcements like this, but it fades after a while. We absorb the bad news, get a little more hardened, and carry on. After all, what can an individual do when the pressures facing wildlife are as huge as methods of agriculture, increasing human population and climate change?

Scroll on another three years to 2016, to the second State of Nature Report. The decline continued. It showed that the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. More than half of our farmland birds are in danger of extinction for example. This report highlighted some good news stories too, showing where targeted conservation has worked, but on the whole the picture was just as dispiriting, and getting worse.

These reports came at a time when it was also increasingly clear that we are disengaging from the natural world as never before. 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.

Nature deserves better than resignation and negativity. The natural world needs us to be positive and forward-looking like never before

It hasn’t always been the case. For generations, the British Isles were the best studied islands in the world. The 2013 report reads: ‘For over 200 years, amateur naturalists have been investigating the birds, plants, bugs and every other form of life that shares the country with us. For most of these enthusiasts, their primary motivation has been simple curiosity and fascination with the natural world. This world is indeed fascinating, and incredibly diverse. Most people have no idea that they share the UK with 4,000 species of beetle, 7,000 species of fly or 17,361 species of fungus. A detailed study of most British gardens would reveal hundreds of different types of moths. And our countryside is surrounded by seas full of enormous numbers of species even less well known than those on land.’


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Yes, the natural world is indeed utterly fascinating. It is the source of wonder, joy, astonishment, mystery, sometimes fear. It is both beautiful and raw. It challenges us to the heart. It makes us human. It is irreplaceable. So why are we losing interest?

The same report then goes on to say: ‘But scratch beneath the surface and there is a huge interest in nature – almost every child is interested in animals, at least when young. How can we bring this interest even further into the mainstream? What can we do through our schools, for example, to help city kids learn the pleasures of getting muddy while hunting for bugs? If we can inspire the next generation, we will create a huge force for nature.’

OK – so here’s one solution. Let’s launch a GCSE in natural history. Let’s teach young people to name the world around them, to follow it through the year, to monitor numbers and to record it so that we can see changes over time. Let’s teach them how to listen to and identify birdsong. To know what flowers you can expect to find where and at what time of year. Let’s teach them what feeds on what – to understand the web of interdependence that is all around us. Let’s teach them the common trees and what they provide, not just for our benefit, but also for the wildlife that lives on, under and in them. Let’s teach about spiders and earthworms, beetles and butterflies and why they are so vital to the functioning of our planet. Why you won’t find a heath fritillary in woodland or a guillemot on a river.

Let’s show them that a city park is full of wonder, as is an estuary or beach or oak woodland. But that is not all. Let’s introduce them the wealth of wonderful literature that has been inspired by nature, from ancient times to today. Let’s celebrate Silent Spring, A Natural History of Selborne, The Goshawk, Last Child in the Woods, the poetry of John Clare; as well as the works of Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey and the many other superb writers today. And what about the influence of nature films and radio documentaries? More young people watched Planet Earth II than The X Factor. This is what a GCSE in natural history could look like, and it should be compulsory for anyone who wants to go into politics. It isn’t a silver bullet, but it is a concrete idea for putting nature back on to the agenda.

Many people are enthusiastic about the idea, but I have also had objections. Some of them include: It is too middle class, too esoteric, too late (better in primary school). It will not be accessible to everyone. It should be spread through the curriculum rather than singled out. Here are some responses: It is not too middle class, no more so than history or geography. Nature is for everyone and we need to instil that. Yes of course nature should be part of education from day one – but it is sorely missing from secondary schools. It is at secondary school where it seems youngsters lose interest in the natural world. A GCSE allows rigor too, and structure, rather than being ‘soft’. No, it may not be as easy to study it in a city as in the countryside, but that is not a reason for dismissing it. Nothing is the same everywhere – there is no level playing field. And some cities have excellent green spaces.

It will take time to reverse declines and to build a society that is nature literate, so we have to start – this is for the long run

Surely it is better to teach it where it is possible, rather than nothing at all? And yes, it should be spread through all subjects, but for those who want to take it further and go deeper, it could be an inspirational course. At the moment that is not an option. I did an o-level in geology – not available everywhere – fell in love with the subject and did a degree. If we can teach GCSEs in politics, economics and business studies, why not natural history? It is just as important – some would argue even more so.

This course will also require the assistance of the wildlife organisations throughout the country, getting them into the classroom and out in the fresh air, helping with teaching and inspiring and thus building community relations. Museums too.

Nature deserves better than resignation and negativity. The natural world needs us to be positive and forward-looking like never before. We have to do something that is long term and solid, and we have to do it now. This will help.

It will take time to reverse declines and to build a society that is nature literate, so we have to start. We are in the Great Age of Forgetting, forgetting what it is like to live surrounded by an abundant and fascinating natural world. We need to get back to a richness and variety, and the joy and wellbeing it brings.

Please sign the petition. Thank you.


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  • Forest Shaman

    Fully behind this approach. Our schools teach mostly rubbish franking, we need to teach our children to think for themselves and understand the world around them, NOT to conform and never question anything!

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