Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has announced a new natural history GCSE subject, that will be launched for first teaching in September 2025. According to the Department for Education (DfE), the new subject would allow students to learn about organisms and their environment, as well as environmental and sustainability issues.
Zahawi has hailed the new GCSE saying “sustainability and climate change are the biggest challenges facing mankind” and the new exam is designed to allow students to develop “a deeper knowledge of the natural world around them”. There have been many high-profile campaigners for better environmental education, including members of parliament as well as television broadcasters with expertise in nature and the environment.
“This content and these types of skills are already taught through existing, traditional GCSE subjects.”
I certainly agree with the campaigners for better education around the environment and climate change. It demonstrates that the government is indeed thinking about how to improve environmental education and has an ambition to make these issues a top priority. The new Natural History GCSE is set to be designed by OCR and supporters believe it will nurture the next generation of ecologists, by helping students develop skills through conservation and fieldwork.
However, a focus on the environment, climate and a changing world are nothing new. This content and these types of skills are already taught through existing, traditional GCSE subjects, such as biology, geography and chemistry. The government does say the new GCSE will go into “further” depth, but will enough students drop the traditional sciences (with tried and tested pathways to higher education and future careers) in favour of one with a more narrow focus?
“Will enough students drop the traditional sciences in favour of one with a more narrow focus?”
There is no denying that sustainability and climate change are subjects which are already very close to some young students’ hearts. The International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum already has a similar offering for IB students, providing the opportunity to study environmental systems and societies.
I agree with Zahawi that education is “one of our key weapons in the fight against climate change”. Just look at the brilliant work of Greta Thunberg and her “school strike for climate”, which has engaged and impassioned a new wave of young people. Perhaps this new GCSE will appeal to some students more than the traditional science GCSEs. If a new science-related subject can spark an interest in a particular aspect of science, then that is certainly a positive.
There is research by the Wellcome Trust to support that young people find science more enjoyable when related to real life and the world around them. However, the curriculum is already very crowded and pursuing one subject can mean other subjects need to be dropped.
“Young people find science more enjoyable when related to real life and the world around them.”
Students should be taught about the perils of climate change and the dangers we will face in the future. Our young people are definitely part of the solution and the more they can engage with issues around sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the better. However, you could argue that all subjects should be helping to address the pressing issues surrounding the environment and sustainability.
An issue with introducing this new natural history subject at GSCE is: who will teach it? Teachers have limited time, if any, to acquire more in-depth knowledge. Some teachers could have a background in biology, but then lack the expertise in more geography related subject matter. Equally a geography specialist may not be able to teach content more closely related to biology, chemistry or physics.
“Perhaps this new GCSE will appeal to some students more than the traditional sciences?”
Teaching students about these issues is sure to meet the approval of many teachers, yet the reality of putting more content into a crowded curriculum probably means less time for other topics.
Perhaps an alternate to a new GCSE subject is to devote more time to allowing students to research, study and debate these topics with their peers and teachers, as part of the existing curriculum. Increasing the emphasis in current subjects could be brought in much more quickly than an entirely new GCSE.
Will this new GCSE in natural history put the issues of climate change at the forefront of the curriculum? Will it be able to compete for students with other traditional and well-established GCSEs? Only time will tell.