Natural History GCSE

– in Westminster Hall at 11:27 am on 1st December 2021.

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[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 2:30 pm, 1st December 2021

Before we begin, I remind hon. Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of introducing a Natural History GCSE.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Young people today are caught up in an unhappy paradox. While their concern for the natural world is greater than ever before, their access to nature, to discover its magic and to marvel at its wonder, is much reduced. Earlier this year, a study by Bath University found that almost three quarters of young people in the UK are worried about the future of our planet. The findings from that landmark study highlighted the depth of anxiety felt by young people as a result of climate change and must inspire in us all—politicians, parents and teachers—an imperative to respond.

For me, like many colleagues, those findings reinforced what my parliamentary inbox tells me every week. I receive emails and letters from schoolchildren and young activists concerned about the future of our planet—from climate change and plastic pollution to deforestation and species decline. On Monday this week, I visited Parkland School in Hampden Park, and the very first question put to me by the school council was: what are we doing to address climate change? In fact, this year, messages and petitions from Eastbourne’s young people reached as far as Glasgow and COP26. Their words calling for action were inscribed on templates shaped as birds in flight. I have made it my mission to see those birds next land at No. 10 with the Prime Minister.

However, despite this heightened concern for the environment, many young people have grown up in the absence of nature, estranged from large parts of our precious natural inheritance. There are myriad reasons for this, but a fundamental truth still stands: we are born with an innate yearning for nature—what ecologist Edward Wilson dubbed biophilia. Consider the fascination of a toddler eyeing up a frog or the euphoria of children crunching through autumn leaves and splashing in puddles.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Is that not why so many forest schools are starting to crop up all over the countryside?

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I thank my hon. Friend for that most timely intervention. The forest school movement is to be greatly encouraged. It has inspired a raft of initiatives across the country, including in my constituency. It brings children into that natural environment, where learning is almost by osmosis; it is so natural and incidental. In that environment, children develop a great love of nature, which is so necessary to inspire that desire for further understanding and to learn about respect and protection.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady on bringing the debate to the House. Forest schools were featured on “Countryfile” on Sunday past, which was incredibly encouraging. My constituency has something like that: Castle Gardens Primary School. When the Minister of State for Northern Ireland came over—he replaced this Minister in that role—we visited Castle Gardens to see what it was doing. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is a place for children understanding the world around them? For many, that will provide their future employment and livelihood, which is important. Does she further agree that we should work closely with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs here and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs back home to align environmental jobs with this exciting prospect of a GCSE?

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I concur with all that the hon. Gentleman said. That love of nature that we want to inspire in the youngest children needs to find progression and continuity in every age and all the key stages of the curriculum. Ultimately, that will provide them with skills and insight for a future where, as we look to build the green economy, we need to build a green workforce, too. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I congratulate Caroline Ansell on securing this really important debate. I apologise that I cannot stay for all of it, due to a Select Committee happening simultaneously. Does she share my excitement that, since nature writer and producer Mary Colwell initiated this campaign in 2011, it has gathered more and more support, including among teachers and students? Does she agree that it would help to fill a critical gap in the curriculum by helping students understand the complexities of the natural world, with intensive field study of whole organisms in context, in a way that no other GCSE currently allows?

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention; she is my near neighbour along the coast. I had the great pleasure and privilege to speak to Mary this week ahead of today’s debate. I am a huge admirer of her work and her passion to see the next generation equipped and empowered for the future that faces them, in terms of both protecting our natural environment and having a great love for that environment, which is important to their wellbeing.

I would like to focus on another point mentioned by the hon. Lady, which is what this unique qualification would bring to the curriculum. An important gap has been identified and worked on by OCR, not least around the knowledge of organisms in their context, as she described, but also around the mix of subject areas where this GCSE could bring such powerful learning. Some have raised concerns that this subject overlaps with other subjects, such as biology or geography, but we see overlap in the curriculum as it stands. We see overlap between economics and mathematics; we see overlap between history and English. Some say overlap, but I might say reinforcement and consolidation. I might say that this triangulates and makes learning more powerful through the experience of encountering common subject matter across different disciplines. So the hon. Lady is right to highlight this subject’s unique and distinct contribution, in both its mix and its content.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

We have all become admirers of Mary Colwell, and perhaps the hon. Lady agrees with her when she said:

“A GCSE in natural history would reconnect our young people with the natural world around them. Not just because it’s fascinating, not just because it’s got benefits for mental health, but because we’ll need these young people to create a world we can all live in, a vibrant and healthy planet.”

That underlines what the natural history qualification the hon. Lady is trying to achieve could do for many of our children, while not in any way undermining the place of traditionally taught history, which has a role to play in the curriculum.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I thank the hon. Gentleman, whose point was well made. This is not an “instead of” qualification; it is potentially an “alongside” or an “as well as”. It complements study across several different disciplines, not least opening up employment prospects, as he described. I go back to that inherent truth that one cannot protect what one does not love. We need to connect with that great love of nature and then reinforce that with the knowledge, insight and skills required to bring conservation work forward. It will be such an important torch for this generation to carry forward.

We have all seen in our schools some of the work that is being done, either in the curriculum or extra-curriculum in the wider life of the school, alongside this heightened concern for the environment. The truth is that eight in 10 children who were interviewed by Natural England in its People and Nature survey agreed that being in nature made them very happy. This generation has not had the same opportunities as previous generations to enjoy our once rich natural environment. Almost half of UK species are in long-term decline, including key species such as the hedgehog, whose numbers are down 95% since the 1950s. We have ploughed up or concreted over large swathes of native habitat in the last century, including 97% of our wildflower meadows.

Access to nature is highly unequal. One in five children living in England’s most deprived areas spend no time at all in the natural environment. The consequence of this precipitous decline is what is known as the shifting baselines phenomenon, whereby successive generations simply become accustomed to ever lower levels of biodiversity, unaware of the greater abundance enjoyed by those who came before. The raucous dawn chorus of a century ago and the splattering of insects on the car windscreen, which were commonplace in our childhoods, are unknown to young people today. One survey found that 83% of five to 16-year-olds could not identify a bumblebee, one in four could not identify a badger or robin, and almost half could not identify brambles, blackberries or bluebells.

Although they have never been so far removed from nature, eight in 10 children and young people in England say that they would like to do more to protect the environment and that doing so is important to them. It is that gulf between, on the one hand, the knowledge and experience of the natural world that are required to protect it and, on the other, the growing concern about ecological decline that a new natural history qualification could help to close.

We know just how important education is if we are to overcome the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Sir David Attenborough has called for a greater role for nature in our schools, highlighting the growing absence of nature in young people’s lives and the negative impact that this is having on their wellbeing and that of the planet.

Sir David’s plea was reinforced earlier this year by the landmark Dasgupta review into the economics of biodiversity, which was commissioned by our Treasury Ministers and published to widespread acclaim internationally. It emphasised the importance of integrating nature studies into the curriculum. Professor Dasgupta argued that this would improve health and wellbeing and—going back to the point made by Jim Shannon—empower young people to make informed choices, as well as hold Governments and businesses to account for their impact on the natural world.

With the right knowledge and skills, all young people, whatever their background, can and should contribute to the great national and global effort to halt nature’s decline. After all, that mission is now the law of this land. We are the first country in the world to set a legal deadline for halting nature’s decline by 2030, thanks to the landmark Environment Act 2021, which also contains a suite of measures to clean up our air and waterways, reduce waste and increase biodiversity.

Recognising the essential contribution that schools, teachers and young people can make to protecting our environment, the Education Secretary launched the Government’s climate and sustainability strategy for schools at COP26. I commend the Government for their leadership and ambition, and teachers and students in Eastbourne will relish the chance to increase biodiversity in their playgrounds and contribute to rewilding efforts in our community—indeed, they are already doing so.

It would be most remiss of me were I not to mention at this point the latest members of Parkland, where llamas now join ducks and chickens, or of West Rise Junior School, which now hosts water buffalo, which find their way into every element of the primary curriculum, from art through to mathematics and beyond.

The Eastbourne Schools Partnership, which is now the Coastal Schools Partnership following the inclusion of schools from Seaford and Bexhill, is a group of partner schools that have formed the Reconnect Group, which meets to discuss ways to help young people re-engage with the natural environment. It was inspired by a similar group called the Millennium Kids, an Australian group that it linked up with during Eastbourne’s Making Natural History conference in November 2020. The Reconnect Group is working with the Eden Project in Eastbourne as it looks to develop Jubilee Way as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy project and make it somewhere where young people can do exactly that: reconnect with the environment. The group will be walking Jubilee Way this weekend, as part of the research, so that pupils can contribute ideas to Sir Tim Smit and his team for different learning zones along the way. It is a 10-year project. Good things are happening.

What is more, the Government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will help plug the green skills gap. I and colleagues in the Conservative Environment Network believe that they could go even further by setting a requirement in law for the Secretary of State to publish a green skills strategy.

It is within that context—a world-leading Environment Act, a stronger emphasis on climate change in the national curriculum and a green skills revolution—that the Government could also look to introduce a natural history GCSE. It would be a part of the whole—a jigsaw piece. It would demonstrate to schools, students and parents the high value we place on study in this area.

The proposed GCSE was developed by Cambridge Assessment and OCR following an extensive consultation that received more than 2,000 responses. I am pleased to say that the Eastbourne Schools Partnership sat on the strategic advisory group. The results are most impressive and very compelling: 94% of the young people who responded said that they would have liked to study the GCSE, and 96% of UK teachers and educators who responded were interested in teaching the qualification.

The natural history GCSE would reflect progression within the existing curriculum. It builds on nature observation content in key stages 1 to 3, providing a good capstone assessment at 16 that brings together those threads in a way that existing courses in geography and biology cannot.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

Is there any evidence from the people who responded that young people would take up natural history instead of science and geography? Would it be an alternative or an add-on? The number of GCSEs that most people can take is limited.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

My hon. Friend is right to highlight one of the challenges around curriculum choices. Of course, with every choice there is an opportunity cost. However, this additional, optional GCSE would complement any choices, be they arts or science choices. The curriculum is designed to provide a broad and balanced education in the core, so there would be no learning loss—the science component is already guaranteed and safeguarded. This new GCSE would provide an opportunity for extended study into the natural world, with all the benefits that could bring. Of course, as I said earlier, it is quite a mix of a GCSE, in that it rests on several different disciplines, so it is a good all-round GCSE choice to complement any combination of subjects that students might choose.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I wonder if the hon. Lady has come across the statements from university lecturers about the fact that they see students come through the school system and arrive at university without having had the field study or the immersion in nature and the direct contact with it in terms of identifying, monitoring and recording the life around them. That is what the GCSE could do. It would give pupils a really intimate knowledge of nature and first-hand experience of working with nature in a very different way from something that is more usually desk based.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the significance of that component of the proposed new GCSE. I think we would all agree that learning through doing and being active within that learning is a hugely powerful experience. The content is, of course, very important, but it is the real-time, real-place study that will make this proposal a particularly attractive and meaningful learning experience, and a brilliant springboard to further study, whether at A-level or at university. As the hon. Lady says, it is about active engagement.

A key component of the new course includes those practical field studies—as mentioned by the hon. Lady—to develop the skills of observing, describing, classifying and analysing wildlife. That bridges an important gap in the curriculum. Students would learn about the wildlife in their local area, engendering that important sense of place, wherever that place might be. They would develop an understanding of ecosystems and the interdependence of the organisms within them, as well as the forces that shape them, including human activity such as farming and urbanisation.

The OCR proposal contains unique skills and content, while reinforcing skills in biology and geography, which are complementary, in the same way as physics complements maths, and history geography. The skills developed by the course would support various academic and vocational post-16 pursuits, including in the biosciences, geography and land-based industry, helping to plug our green skills shortage. If the Government were minded to initiate further work on this, students could begin by taking the course from September 2024.

A number of challenges are involved, as with all innovations, but they are far from insurmountable. Do we have the expertise to teach and establish the course? The answer is yes. Biology and geography teachers would be the most likely to teach the course, but OCR has interest from teachers of all subjects. Teachers are by instinct and training hugely resourceful. We also have a world-leading non-governmental organisation community—from the Eden Project and the Wildlife Trust, to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—which sits on a wealth of knowledge, material and sites that can be deployed to support teachers. Indeed, many of those groups already do great work in providing educational visits for families and schools.

Can we ensure that the qualification is accessible to all students? Again, the answer is yes. Field studies are deliberately designed to be applicable in both urban and rural settings. Government and civil society can play a role in encouraging take-up in deprived areas by facilitating trips and visits to nearby nature spots, as well as bringing wildlife into classroom study.

In short, introducing a natural history GCSE is feasible for schools and could be widely accessible to students from all backgrounds in all parts of the country. It would be part of the jigsaw to arrest the shifting baselines phenomenon by highlighting the change to our natural environment over time and the potential for restoration in the future. Committing to the new qualification would show young people that society values the environment. It would provide them with the tools to make a positive contribution towards solving the biodiversity and climate challenges. It would give them the opportunity to acquire a recognised qualification that reflects a deeper connection with and understanding of the natural world. Such learning and recognition will equip and empower this generation of students to rise to meet one of the principal challenges of our times. I commend its adoption to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley 2:53 pm, 1st December 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell for bringing this important debate to this Chamber, and I bow to her expertise as a former teacher and director of studies.

My hon. Friend may know that I never miss the opportunity to say that GCSEs no longer have any place in our assessment system. I think that we should have a 14-to-18 curriculum that could include the topic of natural history, as well as other subjects, giving skills and knowledge to young people. Employers, universities, parents and young people themselves are looking for a curriculum that sets them up for future careers. I believe that public examinations at 16, at which 49.9% of young people fail English and maths, are not acceptable.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I thought I was being bold in proposing the introduction of one GCSE, but my hon. Friend has taken that proposal and raised me a revolution. I am sure that teachers everywhere will admire the breadth of her ambition. I think that where she and I agree is that this would include a component or a topic dealing with natural history. Does she therefore agree that this needs to be given a greater profile, greater prominence and greater coverage, and that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on the field studies mentioned by Caroline Lucas, in order for this new, revolutionary education system to meet the needs of this generation of students?

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

I absolutely agree with that, and I will come on to it later. We need to look again at our curriculum to ensure that young people are not alienated from education, and what my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne has said about natural history may be part of that. I am not against exams or other rigorous methods of assessment, but at present I do not believe that the existing system is working. I am looking forward to the beginning of next year, when several commissions will report on the subject of the new assessment system.

Turning to the OCR proposal for a new GCSE in natural history, the environment is a very important subject—possibly the most important—for all young people. Like my hon. Friend, when I meet children and young people, that topic is always at the forefront of their conversations and questions, and their letters and emails are all deeply concerned about the environment. In 2021, Global Action Plan found that 89% of young people aged seven to 18 said that caring for the natural world was quite or very important, and teachers would like there to be more in the curriculum about climate change, although they need more training and information about it.

As such, I agree with teachers and pupils that natural history should be an integral part of the national curriculum starting at key stage 1, but in fact it is already there. As the OCR report mentions, children begin studying natural history at an early age, from key stage 1 to key stage 4 in science. Science covers many of the subject aims and learning outcomes that OCR has put in its proposal for a natural history GCSE. For instance, in year 1, pupils are taught to use their local environment to explore and question how plants grow, looking at plant structures, using equipment to identify plants and describe them and record how they change over time. Year 2 looks at living things and their habitats: pupils explore and compare the differences between things that are living, things that are dead and things that have never been alive; identify that most living things live in habitats—including microhabitats—to which they are suited; and describe how different habitats provide for the basic needs of different kinds of animals and plants and how they depend on each other, including food chains. Pupils in years 3 and 4 perform a range of scientific experiments and observations on natural history, looking at naturally occurring patterns and relationships and using data, and that continues in years 5 and 6, increasing the complexity of what those pupils are learning, mostly based on natural history. As such, by key stage 4—GCSE level—science already covers nearly everything that is in this new GCSE.

I worry that bringing in this new GCSE would dilute the rigorous science GCSE by diverting young people into another, similar course that is far narrower than the existing science one. They would miss out on many elements of science, such as chemistry and physics, which contribute to young people’s general knowledge and would help their understanding of our environment. Geography is only compulsory up to key stage 3—although, of course, I would change that if I were going to design a curriculum from 14 to 18—but the geography GCSE also covers much of what is in this natural history proposal, and dovetails well with the science GCSE. OCR states that it would use

“the same underlying rationale as the models in GCSE Science and Geography, which support rich practical and field work, but do not use over-structured practical and field work to contribute marks to the grade. This avoids boring work which could easily be ‘gamed’ or leads to poor-quality assessment.”

That is a really odd comment, and I hope it does not mean that OCR believes that this boring work is already happening. If it is, why on earth are examination boards not making it more interesting for science and geography?

OCR also says in its proposal that the new GCSE would not comprise

“a redundant overlap with other disciplines and discipline areas”.

I would challenge that: I believe that it would, and I think that my hon. Friend agrees with me, because she mentioned that in her speech. There is not enough time in such a broad GCSE, which contains geography, biology, geology and so on, to incorporate rigorous knowledge of each of those subjects. Could it be seen as an easier alternative? I have read the proposal carefully, but I am concerned that people will take natural history as an alternative and therefore miss out on important and valuable study areas. However, I agree that we must include much more about the environment and our natural history in the curriculum. Environmental literacy should be developed across a range of subjects. Learning about our natural world should not be limited to one subject alone.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

Of course—I knew that my hon. Friend would say that.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I thank my hon. Friend, who raises some valid concerns that need to be addressed and, indeed, have been addressed in other places. One thing that I seek to understand more is the important idea of environmental literacy that she describes. Throughout the curriculum, there is much emphasis on language and communication as well as mathematics and numeracy. She describes early experiences extending all the way through the key stages. Is it not rather odd that, when we come to key stage 4, there is not that same continuity and, therefore, opportunity for students to demonstrate environmental literacy in a way that further education institutions or employers could recognise?

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. However, environmental literacy should be not just limited to science and geography but seen through English. We can think of a whole lot of poetry about nature.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

My hon. Friend is a language teacher, not an English teacher.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

Indeed—a French teacher. One of the most exciting and potentially dynamic elements of the new GCSE is that it goes beyond a purely scientific approach where it might rest on biology or even geography and extends to our understanding of the natural world as manifested in art, music and literature. There is a rich inheritance therein inspired by our natural world. The new GCSE does everything that my hon. Friend suggests.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

In that case, I am even more concerned that the rigorousness of a science—chemistry, physics and biology—would be completely missed out. I fear that people would take the natural history GCSE as an alternative to a science or geography GCSE and that those subjects would be lost. Environmental literacy should permeate every single subject, which would have the same effect as doing a natural history GCSE without the subject being limited to just that course.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

I have one final point. Learning is powerful and threaded, as my hon. Friend describes, through the curriculum. Indeed, that is how students first acquired the skills necessary to understand information technology: it was delivered via other subjects. However, we came to recognise that IT has its own standing and should have its own status and qualification. A student can go further, deeper and wider in the specific and discrete study of IT, even though it is encountered, encouraged and supported in every other curriculum area.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

That is true, but the reality is that fewer people are doing IT at GCSE, probably because it permeates through all the other subjects. That again illustrates why natural history needs to be part of the curriculum. Perhaps examination boards could design better examinations and curriculums rather than bring in a new GCSE that I believe would lead to young people missing out on much knowledge covered by science and geography courses.

Of course, I would much prefer to incorporate environmental literacy into a 14-to-18 curriculum, which would allow for a greater depth of study and development of skills. However, I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing forward this important debate.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

I invite Tulip Siddiq to respond on behalf of the official Opposition.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 3:04 pm, 1st December 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am standing in today for the previous shadow Schools Minister, my hon. Friend Peter Kyle, who is no longer in the role. I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson, for her help in advance of the debate, and I congratulate her on her recent appointment. I also thank the previous shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Kate Green, for the enthusiasm and passion that she brought to the role and to this topic. I will take all the points that were made in the debate back to my colleagues who cover the curriculum as part of their Front-Bench briefs.

I thank Caroline Ansell for making such a passionate speech and for securing an interesting and timely debate on how natural history is a central part of children’s education. Having two small children myself, it is something in which I am very interested. The Labour party believes that natural history, and the damage to the natural world brought about by climate change, must be at the heart of every child’s learning. Indeed, with global temperatures continuing to rise, we have a duty as legislators to introduce our nation’s children to the beauty and wonders of nature, and to ensure that they understand our planet, our place and our dependency on the natural world. Currently, however, only 17% of teachers report that climate change is taught at schools in core subjects other than science and geography. That is why it is so important that nurseries, schools and colleges are supported to instil a love of nature in future generations and to educate children about natural history, how climate change has impacted on that history, and how the damage can be reversed.

It is important to recognise that teachers and school leaders are already working across the country to teach their students about sustainability and the natural environment—whether that is through school vegetable patches or planting trees to mark achievements and special occasions.

I know that the hon. Member for Eastbourne was a teacher, and I believe she is married to a teacher, so she is well versed on the teaching world. I am sure she will join me in celebrating the efforts of all teachers who try to teach sustainability as much as possible. Like me, she is also a school governor, as I think are many MPs. We recognise that schools are trying and doing their best to teach as much as possible. For example, there is the work of the Eco-Schools green flag programme, which is supported by many of the schools in my constituency and others, as well as by nurseries and colleges. It consists of seven steps that educational institutions can take to engage their students on climate change and the natural world, including putting environmental issues in learning plans and choosing texts that explore those issues in subjects such as English. I must admit that that did not happen when I was at school, and I wish it had.

Sadly, despite the fantastic work that is taking place in many parts of the country, many children are still being denied an environmental education. I looked at some of the recent research from the youth-led Teach the Future campaign, which revealed that 70% of UK teachers have not received adequate training to educate students on climate change. It also found that 41% of teachers say that climate change is rarely or never mentioned in their school. Perhaps most shockingly, just 5% say that climate change is integral to many aspects of the curriculum and teaching in their school, which is deeply concerning.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne referred to a report commissioned by the Treasury, “The Economics of Biodiversity”, which warns that the absence of the natural world in our children’s education is a risk to future prosperity. In a time of extreme climate change in which we have seen a loss of biodiversity, it is essential that young people have the knowledge and tools to tackle the climate crisis, because long after most of us have gone, our children will still be here. That is why I once again ask the Minister to carefully consider the report that the Treasury commissioned, and to look at what it recommended.

The research also shows that outdoor learning can improve children’s educational outcomes, particularly for those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and that regular contact with nature makes children happier, healthier and better able to learn. This point was made in a very articulate fashion by Caroline Lucas, who mentioned that she had to leave the room to attend a Select Committee. She talked about the impact that contact with nature can have on children. I go back to a recent poll commissioned by the Wildlife Trust, which revealed that 75% of adults believe that children do not spend enough time enjoying the natural world. As I represent the inner-city constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, I have certainly seen that for myself.

Of course, the situation has got even worse in the past 18 months. A survey by Save the Children found that more than half of all children were spending less time playing outside with their friends since the outbreak of covid-19. That is very worrying. Once again, while such cross-party agreement might be rare in this House, I agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne that natural history should be at the centre of children’s learning. The Labour party believes that children should have a strong understanding of the environment, and we look warmly on any proposal that fosters that ambition.

I also agree with Mrs Drummond—I hope I pronounced her constituency correctly. When I speak to schoolchildren, as I often do when visiting local schools, climate change is the one issue they passionately care about and will bring up without fail every time I address a school assembly. It is important to ensure that every child, not just those who choose to study for a particular GCSE, understands the challenges facing our planet and our society. That would require the natural world to be integrated across the whole curriculum, not just in science and geography lessons or a natural history GCSE, but in all subjects, from English literature to history and others.

We must support schools and educators to do that if we want to see a genuine difference in the way natural history is taught. Embedding natural history, biodiversity and climate change within the curriculum will require new training for teachers and teaching assistants, which is why the Labour party has committed to giving all teachers a right to continuing professional development, with £210 million extra a year for CPD. That funding could be used to deliver training on the climate and the natural world, and I hope that is something the Government will also consider.

The Labour party has also announced plans for 400,000 green jobs, and it is essential that we enable young people to develop the skills for those employment opportunities. That has to start in schools and colleges, and climate change and green skills should be a priority for schools as well as for further and higher education, a point made by Jim Shannon—I think he had to go, but obviously no Westminster Hall debate is complete without his contribution, so I had to mention him.

I have a series of questions for the Minister that I hope he will answer. How are the Government working to ensure that natural history and climate change are embedded across the education system? What are the Government doing to ensure that teachers receive adequate training to educate students on climate change? We cannot just tell them to do it; we have to help and support them. How will the Government ensure that outdoor learning is a key part of children’s experience at school? That question is particularly important in the light of the statistics I talked about relating to covid-19. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that young people are gaining the skills they need at school and college to prepare them for the green economy?

Ensuring that the future generation value and respect their natural environment will be fundamental in the struggle to reverse the climate crisis, so I wholeheartedly welcome this important debate on how best to secure that end. I urge the Minister, who I know is willing to listen, to reflect on today’s discussion to ensure that the natural world and climate change are at the heart of children’s education and learning.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education) 3:13 pm, 1st December 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend Caroline Ansell on securing this debate, and it is a pleasure to follow Tulip Siddiq, who gave a very good speech. Although I understand she is here in a caretaker capacity, I welcome the tone with which she engaged in the debate. I particularly welcome the lively debate that we had on the Government Benches between my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne and for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond).

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne, as I am sure do her constituents, for her dedication to tackling environmental issues such as pollution, toxic air quality and single-use plastics. I also thank her for her continuing dedication to improving education and ensuring that every child gets the best start in life. She is one of many former teachers on our Benches who bring huge passion and experience to the Chamber and our debates.

I welcome this timely debate and the contributions we have heard from hon. Members across the House. The Department is currently considering its broader strategy for sustainability and climate change, one of the key strategic aims of which is excellence in education and skills for a changing world. I will do my best to answer the specific questions that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn put to me, but I also direct her attention to a recent debate that we had in this very Chamber on the broader issue of sustainability and climate change, and the responses that I gave then.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne echoed one of the points raised in that debate, about the level of concern among young people around these issues. It is absolutely right that we should seek to address that, and to equip them with the tools and the confidence to find solutions to protecting the natural world and tackling climate change. On launching the draft strategy, our Department committed to engaging with young people and stakeholders ahead of the publication, and we are keen to hear many different views and consider many different opportunities, of which natural history may be one.

I begin this response by fully acknowledging the importance of educating young people about the environment and nature. Climate change impacts everyone and requires us all to change the way we behave and work. In England, there are over 72,000 early years and childcare providers and there are more than 16 million children, young people and adults in education across the whole of the UK.

We have a responsibility to prepare all our children and young people to meet the challenges, and to empower them to play their part in finding solutions so that they can benefit from the opportunities that we will face in the future. This is clearly a worthy topic for discussion. We must prepare young people as our country prepares for a low-carbon, greener future—one in which we can be better custodians of nature than, perhaps, previous generations have been.

At COP26, on 5 November, the Secretary of State announced a draft sustainability and climate change strategy and two key new nature-based initiatives—the national education nature park and the climate leaders award. Throughout the development of the draft strategy, the Department, including Ministers and the Secretary of State, has been engaging with young people to ensure that it reflects their needs. As part of that, we explored the subject of improved sustainability and climate education, of which nature clearly forms a critical element. We discussed the matter of a specific natural history GCSE with young people, and they told us they believe it is important for all young people to learn about the natural world, not necessarily just those who attend a school that may be able to offer a specific natural history GCSE or who elect to study it.

As we have heard, No. 10 commissioned the landmark Dasgupta review, “The Economics of Biodiversity”, which also set out the importance of young people learning about and valuing nature for the protection and restoration of biodiversity. For that reason, we have set out action in our draft sustainability and climate change plan that enables young people to learn more about the natural environment. That includes a primary science model curriculum, to include an emphasis on nature and the recognition of species, which came up briefly in today’s debate but was mentioned more in the previous debate that we had in Westminster Hall about the environment.

In that debate there was a lot of interesting talk about British birds and the importance of recognising them. I repeat the remark that I made then—that, as a Robin, I feel particularly strongly that this is something to be welcomed. Including the study of species native to the United Kingdom, such as the hedgehog, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne rightly made an impassioned case to protect, will ensure that all children understand more about the world around them.

Science continuing professional development would further improve the teaching of the national curriculum, which already includes many elements related to the subjects. That should ensure that all young people, right through to key stage 3, will receive an excellent and robust science education. We are continuing to work with sector representatives, young people and delivery partners across Government to refine and build on the draft strategy, ahead of publication of a final version in April 2022. We will continue to discuss the case for a natural history GCSE with stakeholders over the next few months, so that a decision can be made in the context of our broader strategy for sustainability and climate education.

When the Department, which I recently rejoined, started to reform the national curriculum and qualifications a decade ago, we wanted to ensure that they were firmly based on the knowledge that young people need to give them the basis for future study and work, including knowledge about the natural world and the environment. Currently, many elements related to the subject are taught throughout the curriculum, primarily through science and geography, both of which are core parts of the EBacc.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley pointed out, in key stage 1 science pupils learn to understand the concept of habitats, and the relationship between habitats and the organisms that live there. During key stage 2 they learn how to classify organisms and about how changing environments have impacted upon organisms. Pupils also learn about the principles of evolution and how living things have changed over time to become adapted to their environments.

At key stage 3, pupils build on their earlier learning by learning more about the relationship of organisms within ecosystems and their environment. They also study the differences between species, to build an understanding of variation and, in turn, to understand the role that variation and adaptation have played in the evolution and extinction of species.

Key stage 4 biology develops further the key idea of interdependencies within ecosystems, including the specific impact that humans can have on the dynamic nature of ecosystems. Pupils gain a greater understanding of the importance of adaptation and the process of natural selection, and develop their knowledge of classification.

As part of the national curriculum, geography teaching should equip pupils with knowledge about diverse places, people, resources and natural and human environments, together with a deep understanding of the earth’s key physical and human processes. Geography enables young people to become globally and environmentally informed and thoughtful inquiring citizens. Aspects of natural history can be covered throughout the geography curriculum. At key stage 1, for example, pupils are taught to use—

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

The Minister does full justice to all the important content that is already within the curriculum that touches on natural history. Speaking of geography, is it an issue that this does not sit within that key stage 4 core? Does that mean that students are necessarily missing out on some important insight and understanding?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Minister of State (Education)

I want to come to key stage 4 geography. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will just run through the key stages building up to that, and then address key stage 4. We all recognise the benefits of this engagement, both within the curriculum, as I will come to later, and in activities that go beyond the curriculum.

Returning to where we are today, at key stage 2 children are taught to describe and understand key aspects of human geography, including types of settlement, land use, economic activity, including trade links, and the distribution of natural resources. That connects to natural history, as it provides pupils with an understanding of the physical and economic context in which organisms live, including the impact of agricultural and industrial processes on nature.

At key stage 3, children are taught to understand how human and physical processes interact to influence and change landscapes, environment and the climate, and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems. There is scope to cover other aspects of natural history throughout the geography curriculum, and coverage need not be limited to the examples that I have given.

In key stage 4 geography, young people gain an understanding of the interactions between people and environments, change in places and processes over time and space, and the interrelationship between geographical phenomena at different scales and in different contexts. Again, that links to natural history, as young people gain knowledge and understanding of key ideas and principles, such as sustainability, human impact, complex systems and interdependencies. They also learn an overview of the distribution and characteristics of large-scale natural global ecosystems, drawing out for two selected ecosystems the interdependence of climate, soil, water, plants, animals and humans; the processes and interactions that operate within them at different scales; and issues related to biodiversity and to their sustainable use and management. Students are also taught about causes and consequences of extreme weather conditions, and about climatic change and evidence for different causes of that, including human activity.

In both science and geography, young people develop knowledge and understanding of the principles, processes and events that make the systems within which organisms live dynamic. They also develop an understanding of key ideas and principles of life cycle, sustainability, human impact, complex systems and responsibility.

The Government do recognise that fieldwork is a very important part of teaching within geography, which is why geography programmes of study contain geographical skills in fieldwork as a theme in key stages 1, 2 and 3. The new GCSE in geography, taught since September 2016, includes a clearer balance between human and physical geography, and requires pupils to carry out at least two pieces of fieldwork outside the classroom. It is worth noting that the vast majority of students take science GCSEs and 41% took a geography GCSE in 2019-20—an increase from just 26% who took geography GCSE in 2009-10.

Curriculum and qualifications are not the whole story. We have a number of examples in this debate, but we can go beyond that. It is worth reminding everybody that the national curriculum is a framework, setting out the context of what the Department expects maintained schools to cover in each subject. Academies are free to use the national curriculum as a benchmark, to ensure that they deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. The curriculum does not set out how curriculum subjects or topics within the subjects should be taught. Teachers can and do use their own knowledge and expertise to determine how they teach their pupils, and make choices about what they teach, including the teaching of aspects of natural history, building on and enriching the words on the face of curriculum documents.

On a recent visit to the Rivers Multi-Academy Trust and one of its schools in my constituency, I was pleased to see that topics such as nature, climate change and the environment are already included, not just in citizenship, science and geography but in English and art, in a balanced curriculum that it was created to reflect the millennium development goals. Schools are making room in the curriculum to let children experience nature. This provides key learning to all students but also offers flexibility. We see some excellent work in climate education at all levels in schools.

We trust teachers to use their judgment when it comes to materials that they use in class. They are experts in bringing the content of the curriculum to life for their students. Teachers can choose from a wide variety of resources and have the freedom to choose the approaches that best suit their pupils. One example of innovative teaching is from Sara Falcone, a teacher at Dagenham Park School, who, like the Rivers MAT, has introduced the global sustainable development goals into her science lessons so that her students can make links to sustainability in a range of different science topics. Another example is from Matt King, a teacher at Westcliff High School for Girls, who adapted UK Research and Innovation’s Clippy Island resource to make learning about natural selection accessible and engaging for students.

Teachers draw on the expertise and resources of subject associations in this area. For example, the Royal Society of Biology, the Geographical Association and the Royal Geographical Society all produce expert resources, advice and continuing professional development on topics related to the teaching of the environment and natural history. The Department is supporting them on that; through our strategy, we will provide teachers with access to more high-quality resources and share best practice.

Formal education is not the only route for children and young people to learn about nature. There are many excellent opportunities, programmes and awards for pupils focused on natural history and the environment, as well as outdoor education. We worked to ensure our outdoor education centres were included as part of the lifting of covid restrictions, so children are now able to access those on a residential basis. We heard about the fantastic work that goes on in forest schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley was right to draw attention to their work, providing young people with a greater sense of connection with nature and an understanding of our shared future.

Many varied organisations, such as Scouts, Guides, the Young Foresters Award, London Zoo, the John Muir Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, also engage young people with the natural world. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne rightly points out the benefit of initiatives such as planting trees for the Queen’s jubilee, which can also make future contributions in this space. The Department’s Climate Leaders Award will act as an umbrella for the many existing awards and activities that stakeholders currently provide. In doing so, it will help to increase participation in nature-based activities and celebrate and recognise the enormous effort that so many education providers and children and young people put into improving their local environments.

We are currently working with the Natural History Museum to develop the nature park and the climate leaders award further, and we will engage with many stakeholders and young people to ensure that, when those are launched, they provide excellent opportunities for all young people to get practically involved in nature and to contextualise their learning. The ambition is to launch the park and the award scheme in autumn 2022. We also have the Wildlife Trust wild school award pilot and the wild challenge award.

One recent real-life example of work in this space is by Hollie Daw, a sixth-form geography student at the Hurst School, Basingstoke, who received the RGS’s prestigious Ron Cooke award for her individual research into infiltration rates— water soaking or filtering through the soil—in her local Ashford Hill nature reserve. Thousands of primary and secondary pupils and schools have been exploring how they have reconnected with their local environments and green spaces during the covid-19 lockdowns through their entries to the RGS’s Young Geographer of the Year competition, which had the theme, “Remapping our lives”. I look forward to the RGS announcing the winners of that competition on 3 December.

In considering whether to introduce a new GCSE, there are many complex factors that we need to think about. We have heard some of those already, including whether a new qualification is the best way forward to enhance all students’ knowledge and skills in these important areas. Alternatively, we could consider whether there is more we can do to support teachers to teach the current curriculum and qualifications in a way that encourages all pupils to engage more with natural history elements.

Another factor is whether a new GCSE would support progression for pupils who want to go on and study and work in the field of natural history. I heard the strong case from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne that it would. Pupils take only a limited number of qualifications at GCSE, and we could consider whether we should do even more to encourage pupils to study geography at GCSE alongside the sciences, as almost all pupils already study two or three GCSEs’-worth of science. Another factor to consider is whether the qualification adds to the total knowledge that a pupil will gain by the age of 16. Any new GCSE needs to avoid significant overlap with other GCSEs—in this case, science and geography. That is to ensure that young people leave school with a broad and balanced curricular experience, and that individual students are not awarded two GCSEs while only covering the content of one and a half, for example. We also need to consider how teachers of natural history would be sourced without exacerbating existing pressures on the geography and science teacher workforce. It is worth noting that this year we have already seen an increase in the bursaries for both biology and geography.

I have been very grateful to hear the arguments for this case, and to be given the opportunity to set out some of the work that is already going on in this area. There remains a huge opportunity to enrich the existing curriculum. The development of the primary science model will focus on nature and help young people recognise different species, giving them more knowledge that will be required as they move through education.

The Oak National Academy serves millions of children through online classrooms, providing lessons and accompanying resources, which include coverage of the environment, climate change, wider sustainability and other natural history topics. Teachers are choosing from a wide range of high-quality curriculum resources available, from Oak and beyond.

This is a very important area of education. It ensures that young people are prepared to meet the challenges of and equipped to benefit from the opportunities that they will face in the future. As I have outlined, there are already many exciting opportunities within the existing curriculum for people to be taught about natural history. The Department will continue to consider carefully the proposal for a natural history GCSE. It will also continue to support schools to make the most of our new initiatives. The national education nature park and the climate leaders award will ensure that all children and young people, regardless of the subjects they choose to study, will learn more about nature.

There is a huge amount of important work going on, building on the opportunities within the existing curriculum and the qualifications structure. There is always more to do. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne and all who spoke today for emphasising the importance of nature and a love of nature in our education system.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne 3:31 pm, 1st December 2021

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for doing justice to all the very good work that is already being done in schools. He highlighted that there is further work to do to enhance the curriculum as it stands, and that the Department and he are still considering the opportunity to enhance the curriculum by offering this new choice at key stage 4.

During the debate, natural history has variously been described as a priority and something that we must embed and profile. It strikes me that there is consensus around how important and valuable the topic is. It would be a very fitting acknowledgment of how important it is to offer it as a qualification, so that students can demonstrate their skills and the learning that the Minister described, right from when they are tiny all the way through school. As important as those lessons and wider learning are—through different awards and programmes—having a qualification that reflects a body of knowledge and the skills acquired could be an important, valuable contribution to a student’s portfolio.

Choice is very important as students approach their final key stage, unless we are going for the bigger, wider reform that was previously described. All the while we are still in the realm of GCSE subjects, I do think it is important that we continue to innovate, and that the curriculum continues to be dynamic and reflect the future that we are working towards. I noted that the Minister mentioned the Natural History Museum and the Wildlife Trusts as partners, but they support the introduction of a natural history GCSE, so there are some very significant partners willing to bring their expertise to bear to bring forward such a qualification. I heartily recommend the introduction of a natural history GCSE, while appreciating the complexities that are involved. There is nothing more significant or important than the curriculum that we design and offer to this next generation.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the matter of introducing a Natural History GCSE.

Sitting suspended.