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21 April 2022updated 24 Oct 2022 3:54pm

Mary Colwell: the woman behind the UK’s new nature GCSE

In a conservation landscape riven by conflict and opposing interests, the education campaigner insists the new qualification must be “for everyone”.

By India Bourke

Whether it is in the spiral structures of hurricanes and nautilus shells, or the fractal-governed dispersion of a tree’s branches and a river’s streams, one of nature’s greatest wonders is the way that patterns repeat themselves at different scales. So it is perhaps eerily appropriate that the launch of a new natural history GCSE should be taking place on World Curlew Day, which champions the conservation of Europe’s largest wading bird – and that both initiatives owe their existence to the naturalist writer and producer Mary Colwell.

On the evening of Thursday 21 April, Colwell will consequently find herself dashing between various floors of the Natural History Museum in London. Upstairs, she will be “in conversation” with the internationally acclaimed singer David Gray, who is a longtime supporter of her curlew protection efforts. Downstairs, she will take part in the official announcement of the UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s new Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy.

“We want to deliver a better, safer, greener world for future generations and education is one of our key weapons in the fight against climate change,” Zahawi said in a statement. The plans also promise a greater focus on nature and climate change across the school curriculum, as well as accelerated development of ultra-low carbon buildings.

But while the Conservative government is now keen to brandish its conservation credentials, efforts to green the curriculum are the result of years of pressure by Colwell and others. Poorly managed industrialised farming and urbanisation continue to strip Britain of much of its wildlife: 41 per cent of species have declined since the 1970s. This paucity has in turn devalued people’s appreciation of ecology and conservation, as well as negatively impacting their well-being, Colwell explains to me over the phone from the Yorkshire Dales.

“It’s a much more threadbare world” than it was in the 19th century, when Charles Darwin penned his world-shifting theory of natural selection, so it’s necessary to reverse the vicious circle. “It’s time to get back outside and be enchanted by nature again.”

The idea that a natural history GCSE could be one way to achieve this shift came to Colwell “in a flash”, back in 2009, during a meeting with Tony Juniper, the now chair of the government advisory body Natural England. Her petition to have the issue debated was thwarted by the 2017 snap election, yet new inputs from the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, and Tim Oates of Cambridge University Press and Assessment furthered the cause. Four years later, the plan was given the green light.

“There’s a greater awareness now of the multiple crises we are facing: climate change, biodiversity, habitat loss, pollution; it’s all coming home to roost,” Colwell says. “It’s obvious young people want to be skilled-up to cope with the future. A natural history qualification means you can read nature’s signals, and then better prepare for what lies ahead.”

If you don’t know that the ptarmigan only lives in certain temperature zones, then you won’t understand that the creature’s decline is a sign of climate change, she explains. “It’s hard to balance the human and wild agendas – and we need some of our finest young minds to be working on those challenges.”

Conservation is full of conflict, however (such as between sheep farmers and rewilders), and the campaign has not been without its obstacles. Critics, such as the youth birder Mya-Rose Craig, have expressed concerns: what if the subject is only taught in wealthier schools? Or limits environmental awareness to a non-core subject and takes pressure off the rest of the curriculum? Or comes too late in a student’s education?

Yet Colwell is also hopeful that, as part of its wider “strategy” for sustainability, the government will help ensure that the existing provisions at primary school level are protected and extended, that other subjects also foreground nature and climate change, and that financial support is there to ensure that those who do take the new GCSE are able to travel around the country for firsthand fieldwork. 

Oates, who has developed the draft specification for the exam, echoes her optimism. Overlaps with other subjects will probably strengthen, not undermine, the wider greening of the curriculum, he suggests. A biology GCSE paper might ask a question about how the gills of an axolotl operate – but would not require the student to know about the wider context in which the species live (such as in the highly polluted Lake Xochimilco in Mexico), as natural history would.

In fact, cultivating greater openness and cross-pollination seems to be at the heart of Colwell’s vision for the new subject. “It’s got to appeal across the board,” she stresses. “I want everyone to feel it’s a course for them.”

It’s an instinct with deep roots for Colwell. Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent with a Catholic mother from Northern Ireland and a Protestant father, she was aware from a young age of the importance of sensitivity and inclusivity: “I understood from my mother’s family the pain involved in politics from both sides. I wish we could be more compassionate and kinder; kindness is an immensely powerful thing.”

And while Colwell says that the new course should teach students about competing human agendas, she also believes it will be apolitical. “The course can lay out the issues that something like an endangered curlew faces – but not then say that X is the best thing to do.” 

The ultimate test of the new GCSE will therefore take place outside the classroom – in whether those who take up the qualification (as well as the government that has implemented it) go on to push for the “best” for nature. Britain’s future environmental well-being will require that they do nothing less.

[See also: “Twenty minutes with trees restores your focus”: the father of the UK’s forest schools on the outdoor learning boom]

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