The UK government plans to introduce an “exciting” new GCSE in natural history by September 2025. Details of the qualification are included in the Department for Education’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy, which was launched this week. The education secretary claims that the UK education sector will become “a world leader in climate change by 2030”. However, though a new natural history GCSE is a not unwelcome development, it is likely that it will be studied only by a minority of students. In its new strategy the government has avoided the more radical, ambitious and impactful approach of embedding learning about sustainability and climate change across the curriculum.
The expectation is that the new natural history qualification will enable young people to explore the world by learning about organisms and environments, environmental and sustainability issues, and gain a deeper knowledge of the natural world around them.
The qualification will also help young people to develop the skills to help them carve a future career in the natural world if they wish to – for example observation, description, recording and analysis, through sustained and structured field study.
The new natural history GCSE will offer young people a chance to develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of this amazing planet, its environment and how we can come together to conserve it.Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary
The Field Studies Council, a UK outdoor education charity, described the announcement as a “major win” for young people and the environment:
This new qualification will give older secondary school learners the opportunity to study the natural world in greater depth and help them to develop the passion and skills they need to care for and protect the environment now and in the future.Mark Castle, chief executive of the Field Studies Council
We can assume that the new natural history GCSE will be an option for students to choose in key stage 4 (ages 14–16). This means that it will appear in a long options list alongside other important subjects such as music, history and art from which students have to choose perhaps two or three. It is not unreasonable to think that it may be chosen only by a few thousand students.
Other than this planned new GCSE qualification, the government’s strategy document says little else about learning about the natural environment that is new. The relevant section mainly sets out what is already happening in the curriculum via:
It also mentions the introduction this year of an annual climate literacy survey “to benchmark progress in improving the climate knowledge of school leavers.” And there is a promise to continue identifying appropriate opportunities to align climate education with the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD for 2030) framework.
There is little evidence of the need to embed sustainability and climate change learning across the curriculum. As the youth-led pressure group Teach the Future say, it is “dangerous for young people to think climate change is just the concern of geographers and scientists.”
In recent blogs such as A green education for children and Schools white paper needs to be greener we have argued the case for embedding sustainability and climate change learning across the curriculum. Our recent short series of linked blogs (see the links below) explored this key challenge that lies ahead as governments and other decision-makers seek ways to prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change – how to influence lifestyle choices so that people live more sustainably. It concluded by arguing that there are no simple solutions but that a green education must be central to any long-term strategy. Children and young people, we said, are key to a greener future.
What is distinctive about the Life-Based Learning approach is that it reorganises learning around the immense challenges that we all face in the coming decades. One way of doing this is through an integrated approach that moves away from the rigid compartmentalisation of learning into individual subjects, with the ensuing risk that much of importance is lost in the interstices between one subject and the next. Instead, LBL reframes the curriculum around nine learning themes. Subject content is respected – all of it – but it is delivered through nine life themes that directly address the challenges we face.
Image at the head of this article by Mojpe from Pixabay.