In recent years, it has become clear that whilst young people are highly engaged with environmental issues, the current school curriculum is failing to encourage a connection with nature. Today, with 83% of the UK population living in urban areas and technology dominating much of our lives, the education system favours technical subjects over those about the natural world. Consequently, awareness of even common species is very low. In 2002, a UK study of 8 year olds found that fewer than half could recognise an oak tree.
The concerning lack of knowledge and appreciation for nature amongst young people recently prompted campaigners to call for an educational reform. The result was a proposed GCSE in Natural History which, if approved, could be introduced for teaching in UK schools later this year. The course, which was first suggested by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and nature writer Mary Colwell, would aim to teach students about organisms in their natural environment, along with conservation and observational field skills. In contrast to Biology, which focuses on living processes, Natural History would focus on ‘what the living world is’ giving a more holistic view.
One of the key aims of the course would be to help young people feel more connected to nature. This would not only have benefits for their physical and mental wellbeing but research has also found that individuals who feel connected to nature are more likely to demonstrate pro-environmental behaviours and take action. Without some sort of education, we run the risk of creating a world of adults who lack the information and drive to protect nature which, when it is rapidly declining, is of great concern.
Whilst the plans for the course sound promising, they have not been without their criticism. Many argue that, if schools are well-resourced then education about nature and the encouragement to connect with it should already be covered by the science curriculum. Another issue is that by the time children sit their GCSEs, these lessons may be too late. Research by the RSPB found that only one in five 8-12 year olds exhibited a reasonable level of connection to nature so we likely need to be learning about it and encouraging engagement at a much earlier age. And finally, is adding another qualification to the list really the right way to engage with nature or should we be approaching this completely differently?
David Attenborough’s New Year’s speech gave us hope that 2021 could be the year to turn things around and this GCSE could be a small part of the solution. There are clearly wider socio-economic issues that need addressing in order to help people reconnect with nature but if we have the opportunity to teach young people more about the natural world and inspire them to look after it, then I welcome it.