Natural history GCSE
Young people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. Could a GCSE in natural history be the solution?
Could studying natural history in school ignite the next generation’s passion for wildlife and conservation?
W hile looking for a recording of the dawn chorus in the BBC Natural History Unit sound archives a few years ago, I found an entry from the 1960s, recorded in central England. As I grew up in Stokeon-Trent, I was curious. I clamped on the headphones and, immediately, I was back in my childhood garden with a surroundsound of birdsong.
But something had changed. Unlike the chorus of today, this recording was dominated by the insistent, rhythmic purring of a turtle dove – it was a painful reminder of what was once so familiar. A flood of other memories came back – the bird table covered with starlings and my mother trying to shoo them off, “to let the little birds have a go”; a bush so vibrant with the colour and movement of butterflies that I was mesmerised; and a sharp image of my dad stopping his gardening to identify a cuckoo nearby (he always liked the letters in The Times that record people’s first sightings of the bird every year).
Roll on 50 years and the world has changed. According to the 2016 State of Nature report, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We now live in an impoverished land where hedgehogs, butterflies, bees, snakes, farmland birds and wildflowers are rarities, not common fellow travellers. Last year, WWF presented the findings of 59 scientists from across the world. The startling conclusion is that, in my lifetime, the world has lost 60 per cent of mammal, bird, fish and reptile populations. In just the briefest blink of an evolutionary eye, we are systematically destroying the life that exists alongside us on this astonishing planet.
The knock-on effects of this thinning out are that many young people today have little contact with, or knowledge of, once-common wildlife. Even back in 2008, Sir David Attenborough expressed dismay at the lack of knowledge about nature revealed by a poll of 700 children between the ages of nine and 11. It was BBC Wildlife Magazine that conducted the survey, and it showed that only half of the children knew what a blue tit or bluebell looked like, and less than a third could identify a frog. “The wild world is becoming so remote to children that they miss out,” Sir David said. “And an interest in the natural world doesn’t grow as it should. Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it.” In the intervening decade since the survey took place, we have lost even more wildlife.
Most primary schools do try to include some nature study in their busy days, and there is growing interest in young children studying outdoors rather than in a classroom – forest and beach schools bear testament to this. The Government has also set aside £10 million for the development of nature-friendly playgrounds and trips to natural spaces, aimed at primary schools in disadvantaged areas of England. All this is welcome for young children, although, at the moment, the scale and outreach of these enterprises is small and expensive. As children progress through to secondary school, however, there is a yawning gap. Adolescents become even more disconnected from nature, spend less time outdoors, and most never return to it.