Can we reconnect teenagers with wildlife through a new GCSE?

Photo by PJB Photography

Our Head of Communities & Wildlife explores the reasons behind proposals for a new GCSE - and calls on you to respond to the OCR consultation.

It is now 12 years since the American author Richard Louv pointed out that something potentially very damaging was happening to our children. They were becoming more and more disconnected from nature, they were retreating from the world outside. Young people were no longer playing in fields, woods and parks where their parents use to play.

 In “Last Child in the Woods”, Louv documented the causes and consequences. Of those reasons two came to the fore front, stranger danger believing that the outside had become a very risky and unsafe place for children and the increase of screen time with computers, mobile phones and TV.

The words used by Louv – “nature deficit disorder” suddenly became a familiar saying worldwide.

Louv’s work concentrated on the adverse mental and physical health consequences that it was having on our children but the outcome was also having an adverse effect on our wildlife such as hedgehogs, butterflies, bees and plants because our modern children are just not familiar with them.

Stinging nettles

A study in August 2019 found that 51% of UK children were unable to identify a stinging nettle.

The research, commissioned by the family activity app Hoop, involved 1,000 children aged 5 to 16 being shown various natural objects and asked what they were.

  • 97% failed to identify a beech leaf, while 82% failed to recognise an oak leaf.
  • When shown a bumblebee, 83% of children did not identify it.
  • They fared better with larger animals and birds, but even then 65% could not name a kingfisher or a blue tit and 49% did not identify a puffin.
  • 23% failed to identify a robin, while 22% could not name a badger.

“Lost Words”, a beautifully illustrated book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, was published in 2017 as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from the children’s Oxford Junior Dictionary, words related to nature such as acorn, bluebell, cowslip, dandelion, conker, kingfisher and wren. Apparently these words were not being used enough by children to merit inclusion. Their replacements included terms from the digital world such as blog, broadband, chatroom and voicemail.

Now wonder our children, the next generation, have become disconnected from nature.

Youth rangers after bracken pulling at Coopers Hill

PJB Photography

Our Communities & Wildlife Team at the Wildlife Trust work very hard with families and schools. We deliver environmental education programmes to many schools in the three counties, but it is mainly primary schools. We run Little Bugs Clubs and Watch groups targeted at the pre-schoolers and primary school age children. We capture their imagination, encourage them to be hands on, build their confidence in the outdoor world, leave them with the most memorable experiences and then once they leave their primary schools to embark on secondary education... we tend to lose them and become disconnected until they have their own families. Then those wonderful memories of being outdoors as a child come back and some will return.

The secondary school age of young people is such a difficult time in this day and age for them. There is so much pressure from all angles, there are so many choices, there is so much peer pressure very often resulting in such a high rate of mental ill-health in young people it is really alarming.

Recently you will have heard, and especially during this traumatic time of COVID-19, that spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing. For example, doing things like growing food or flowers, exercising outdoors or being around animals can have lots of positive effects.

It can:

So to help our young people, we need to be offering that opportunity for them to connect, learn and love nature.

Natural History GCSE

A consultation is taking place about developing a GCSE qualification in Natural History.

Radio and TV producer Mary Colwell, an increasingly influential figure in the field of nature conservation, has worked hard to propose and get the process underway. While Biology GCSE focuses on the “processes of the living world” Mary would want the Natural History GCSE to focus on “what the living world is”, teaching teenagers about specific organisms, field observation skills, conservation and how nature has influenced art and culture.

This GCSE would help young people reclaim knowledge lost in recent decades as society has become “much more urban, much more indoors” and British wildlife has been depleted. Young people also want to know where they are living and how they are connected to it, and how that fits into the bigger picture of the world. The subject would also tap into the “big movement of young people who care about the natural world” reflected by the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion.

Mary has enlisted a lot of support, including Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Tim Oates CBE, Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, who began to develop a prototype assessment model for the new qualification.

Have your say

The consultation launched on the 4 June 2020 and is open for everyone to take part. The closing date is midnight – 19 July 2020

It takes about 15 to 20 mins to fill in and they are looking for input from people of all walks of life who have an interest in the natural world to give their opinions and feed into the development of this important qualification.

Please do take a look and contribute. Perhaps you could also write to your local MP to highlight the importance of having this as part of the GSCE offering. Hopefully through the consultation feedback they will make sure it is a syllabus that appeals to all sectors of our young society.

Take part in the consultation

And if you know any young people who would be willing to give their feedback, there is a shorter version of the survey available here.

Whether this will happen, we can but hope, but whether it is through a new GCSE or through the continuing work from organisations such as ourselves, if we value our planet it’s vital that we reconnect future generations with the living world around them.