Could you spot a grampy pig? Schools could soon offer natural history GCSE

Could you spot a grampy pig? Schools could soon offer natural history GCSE

Could you spot a grampy pig? Schools could soon offer natural history GCSE

Course would aim to instil love of wildlife in teens and inspire them to protect it. Plus: test your knowledge with our quiz

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Last modified on Sun 29 Aug 2021 05.04 EDT

What is the difference between a weasel and a stoat? Can you name five native UK woodland flowers? What birds are considered lowland heathland specialists? Teenagers could be challenged on these questions as part of a natural history GCSE, which could be announced in the coming weeks.

If plans go ahead, it would be the first GCSE to be introduced since a reformed computer science qualification in 2014. The 21st century is creating a lot of work for technology geeks and nature enthusiasts alike, and schools need to create a generation of youngsters who will be up to the challenge, argues producer and nature writer Mary Colwell.

“It’s really simple – we’re more disconnected than ever before and we need more naturalists than ever before,” she says. Young people need to be able to name and feel at home in nature, says Colwell, who says she was laughed at when she first suggested introducing a natural history GCSE in 2011.

The exam board OCR – part of Cambridge University Press & Assessment – put forward a proposal to create a new qualification in natural history last October, which the government is now considering. In May, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, told parliament the government was “looking at bringing forward a natural history GCSE”.

In February, the Dasgupta review emphasised the importance of learning about biodiversity and ecology at all levels of education, saying “every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history”. An influential panel of MPs on the government’s environmental audit committee (EAC) has since listed a GCSE in natural history as one of its recommendations to halt the catastrophic decline in wildlife. “For biodiversity to be protected, it has to be valued. This starts with education. We support the establishment of a natural history GCSE,” they wrote.

One of the bird found on lowland heathland
Between May and August, the distinctive churring of nightjar may be heard at dusk from mature heath.
https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/habitats/heathland-and-moorland/lowland-heath
2A3HYE3 Colour wildlife photograph of a European Nightjar bird (Caprimulgus europaeus) roosting on ground during day, Poole, Dorset, England, 2019

“The committee was absolutely unanimous on this, it wasn’t a contested issue,” says EAC member Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, who has backed the idea for years. The point of the GCSE would be to equip the next generation with the skills to look after the natural world and “stem the absolutely horrific collapse of nature”, says Lucas. “We often use the word we’ve ‘lost’ half of our wildlife, but that really annoys me because we didn’t ‘lose’ it, it wasn’t lost down the back of the sofa, we have destroyed it through a number of different policy choices.”

For Lucas, a tipping point came when the Oxford Junior dictionary dropped words such as acorn, buttercup, catkin and conker and replaced them with broadband, celebrity, chatroom and cut-and-paste. “If we’re losing the language of acorns and blackberries and things that were kind of taken for granted by so many of us for so long … and we don’t have the experience which could cause us to love it, then we’re not bringing forward a generation of young people who are equipped to defend it,” says Lucas.

Colwell believes all children are born with an innate interest in the wild, but there is a big drop-off in interest when they go to secondary school. “Suddenly we’re not told about nature,” she says. “I don’t think it’s uncool to care about the natural world any more. We’re in a different place.” She wants natural history to be taught at all levels but GCSEs seemed a sensible place to start.

There are still few details about exactly what the GCSE would entail, but more than 90% of people agree or strongly agree with the proposed purpose of it, according to an OCR survey.

Colwell wants localism to be an important part of the course, so people can understand how varied and nuanced British wildlife is, creating nature-literate decision-makers who don’t just think one size fits all. Getting out into the natural world and learning about specific sites would be part of the curriculum, she says.

Mary Colwell walked 500 miles to highlight the curlew's plight in UK, 2016.

“What might be suitable legislation in one place will be a disaster elsewhere … The difference with this GCSE from anything in the past is that I want it to focus on British natural history, and for the course to be flexible enough so that young people can get to know their own locality,” says Colwell.

Concerns have been raised about it being a “softer” option compared with biology, and also a niche subject if it is not followed up with an A-level (this is what Colwell intends to tackle next). Some also question whether it is really needed. Author and broadcaster Prof Alice Roberts says she liked the idea but adds that the biology GCSE she took in the 90s was “very grounded in nature”, and included identification, taxonomy, fieldwork in woods, and dissection of plants and animals.

Others suggest that it shouldn’t need a special GCSE, but should be entwined in all studies, and there should be a focus on getting children to spend time outdoors from the start. Dara McAnulty, the 17-year-old author of Diary of a Young Naturalist, says he is concerned it wouldn’t be a viable option for many if the interest isn’t nurtured in the first place. “Nature education needs a niche in every subject so that we can see it for what it is – intrinsically linked with everything we know and are,” he tweeted.

Lucas believes the government will make a decision before the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow starts at the end of October. If it is approved, board examiners will start putting the syllabus together and getting advice on how to assess the subject. The earliest the GCSE could be in schools would be September 2023.

In the meantime, would you pass a Natural History GCSE? Cambridge University Press & Assessment and Mary Colwell have created this quiz to test your nature knowledge.

1.Grampy pig, hardback and curly bug are all common names for what?
2.Muntjac deer are the size of …

3.Is a slow worm …

4.Horseshoe, pipistrell and bechstein are all UK species of …

5.Which of the following is a visitor to the UK (ie, not resident)?

6.Dead man’s finger (Xylaria polymorpha) is common in woodlands. Is it a …

7.A glowworm is …

8.You are walking in the countryside and find a deep 15cm conical hole with foul-smelling liquid poo in the bottom. You have found …

9.How many eggs do long-tailed tits lay?

10.Which of the following species is native to the UK?

11.How do mussels attach to rocks?

12.The once common turtle dove has declined by 93% since the 1970s. The main reason for this is …

13.Is this butterfly …

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14.How fast does a gannet hit the surface of the sea when diving for fish?

15.How many different species of beetle are there in the UK?

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