Nature at the Heart of Education

  • Contributor information: CNP

16 August 2018

Campaigner Mary Colwell explains her mission to inspire the next generation of naturalists. #summerofbeauty

Lots of things happen to children once they get to secondary school and any parent who has coped with that turbulent transition from child to young adult can no doubt reel off a long list. Sadly, one of them is undoubtedly a dropping off in interest in nature. Young children have a natural affinity for the natural world, they are fascinated by worms and fish, beetles and tigers. Take a child out into one of the UK’s National Could National Parks be outdoor classrooms?Parks and it is clear to see they are not afraid to show their awe and wonder. By the time they reach the teenage years, however, for some reason this becomes way too uncool. Loving nature is relegated to childish passions and dismissed. Even if their interest is still there, many are too afraid to show it for fear of being labelled a nerd or geek. What a pity that is.

Today we need naturalists more than ever before. Over the last forty years the earth has lost half the mass of wildlife on earth. Half the number of bees buzz, birds sing, flowers bloom, meaning there is a lot less of the wild in our lives. Yet nature is at the heart of who and what we are. We depend on it for practicalities like food and water, clean air and healthy crops. Nature in our National Parks, therefore is a source of inspiration and creativity, sound mental health and well-being. Nature is bound up in the warp of weft of our very essence. We evolved in the very heart of the natural world, intricately connected to it in complex ways, yet that bond is being broken.

As the world has become ever more urbanised and more of us live in cities than ever before in human history, we are losing touch with what makes us fully human. Most people are removed from the reality of a changing, shifting natural world. We hardly notice the seasons, are unaware of the great migrations of life around the planet and seem not to notice once common creatures slipping away.

In 2002, a now infamous piece of research, published in the journal Science, revealed children were far better at naming Pokemon creatures than real ones, 80% for Pokemon, less than 50% for natural animals and plants. Children are no longer assumed to be conversant with the outside world. Today, sixteen years later, the State of Nature report, highlighted that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries on earth, with many species even rarer than at the turn of the 21st Century. The “Pokemon Paper,” as it has come to be known, poignantly asked, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren”? A good and important question for UK and world conservation, and one that needs addressing.


We need naturalists more than ever. Photo credit: Stuart Brown

Thomas Beecham

Mary Colwell is calling for changes to inspire a new generation to respect and love nature. Photo credit: Thomas Beecham.

In 2012, I first suggested the idea of introducing a GCSE in Natural History. This will teach young people how to name, record, monitor and collect data on the wildlife of Britain. It will teach them about bird, mammal, fish and insect migration, population trends, invasive species, wild diseases, the effect of climate change and the effect on wildlife of intensifying the landscape of the UK for food production.

National Parks are well-placed to be valuable classrooms. In the Parks children are already learning about nature but a GCSE in natural history could keep the early interest alive in the teenage years.

This course will also teach young people to appreciate the long and wonderful history of nature appreciation in the UK and how that has resulted in wealth of world-class literature, art and music as well as TV and radio. National Parks, and the inspirational movement behind their establishment, will be a key part. It will also examine the role nature is playing in emerging new technologies. It will demand an understanding of maths, geography, English literature, biology, chemistry and history. It will be interdisciplinary and rigorous.

Since the idea was first aired six years ago I have successfully launched a government petition and received over 10,000 signatures. The petition was pulled early because of the snap election in 2017, but it was enough to illicit a government response. Predictably, that said that the current GCSE in biology adequately covered the topics. This is obviously not the case. Natural history deserves more than to be considered a bit-part of another discipline. It is a rich and rewarding subject in its own right and is part of the cultural heritage of Britain. By putting natural history back into the heart of the education system, we can go some way to addressing what is known as ‘nature deficit disorder,” and It has never been more important to re-connect children to the world around them. Not only for science and conservation but also to help generate active and informed citizens who appreciate what a rich natural world contributes to society.

I will be talking about this idea at the Green Party Annual Conference in October in Bristol, as MP Caroline Lucas has taken the concern about the depletion of nature very much to heart. I hope we can once again raise the profile of this proposal and start the process of a thorough and solid investigation into making it a reality.

By Mary Colwell

Mary is an award winning producer and writer. Her book Curlew Moon, detailing her 500 mile walk across Ireland and the UK to raise awareness about the decline of curlews is now available.