Examination that could send youngsters back to nature

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The dread of double maths first thing on a Monday morning can still send shivers down the spine, years after the torture of quadratic equations has seemingly faded from the memory.

But what if children could be enticed through the school gates with the prospect of double bird watching – letting them get to grips with peregrine falcons as well as Pythagoras’ theorem?

A proposal is gathering momentum within the green movement calling for a new GCSE in natural history, combining the rigours of science, geography and history with the unique observational and recording skills of ecology.

Mary Colwell, producer of the Radio 4 series Saving Species and one of the leading proponents of the natural history GCSE, says: “Natural history is needed because society in general and young people in particular are increasingly divorced from the physical world around them.

“Very few children can name common animals and plants or understand why this is important.

“Understanding the functioning of the world outside is vital if we are to produce the next generation who can make informed choices about planning, legislation, environmental impact, mitigation and all the other issues that will become increasingly important.”

Nature Deficit Disorder has been derided in some quarters as the latest pop psychology, but proponents believe our increasing disassociation with the natural world could be causing a range of symptoms such as reduced use of the senses, attention difficulties and higher rates of physical and emotional illness.

Additionally, we have a long and proud tradition of producing some of the world’s best naturalists – Gilbert White, Charles Darwin and Sir David Attenborough to name a few.

This supply line could simply dry up if nothing is done to address the current disconnection from nature and it would seem there is no shortage of enthusiasm.

A poll of 1,000 youngsters aged seven to 14 carried out by the Co-operative last year revealed 82 per cent of children rated learning about green issues as important, putting it ahead of science, history, IT and art, and only slightly behind English and maths.

“Natural history is distinct from other sciences in that it is based on observation, naming and recording the natural world,” says Cowell. “It requires field skills 
and an understanding of the outdoors, not just textbooks. It requires children to be physically and mentally involved in the world around them. A natural historian understands context and time of year in a way that 
isn’t required nearly as much by the other sciences.”

The course, Colwell argues, should cover recording, field and observational skills and statistics as well as a history component enabling pupils to understand the long tradition of nature recording.

Dr Mark Avery, former RSPB director of conservation, believes a GCSE in natural history is long overdue. He says: “There are GCSEs in 30 modern or ancient languages, so why not learn about the language of nature around us? Natural history is part of our culture, like archaeology and sport.

“Although Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband might struggle to get a pass in this subject, there are thousands of children who would shine in it and for whom it would be a stepping stone to greater achievement.”

National Trust naturalist Matthew Oates agrees, adding: “We really do need to fire up children’s interest for nature. And it’s more than just bringing back the ‘nature table’ into primary schools, it’s also about getting them out of the classroom and into nature much more. In my experience, primary school children are really fired up about nature and learning when they do this.

“But we also need to maintain and develop their enthusiasm during their teens by providing inspirational learning opportunities in nature and wildlife which are properly recognised and rewarded by the educational and vocational systems. And these need to be taught indoors and outdoors.

“A GCSE in natural history, and indeed an A-level in ecology, would really help young people to nurture their interest during their teenage years, and set them up as naturalists for life.”

So our classrooms could become a little wilder by reconnecting a lost generation with the natural world. “Natural history is coming out of the geeky cupboard and being placed centre stage,” says Cowell. “There is no use studying biology if life itself is being extinguished. I think young people understand this more than we give them credit for.”