The Guardian view on natural history: children need to know

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The lockdown edition of the BBC’s Springwatch ended on Friday, with a series of clips sent in by viewers to illustrate their wildlife enthusiasms. But the latest stage in a campaign to extend the reach of natural history beyond television schedules has only just begun. The idea for a new GCSE in the subject came from the author Mary Colwell. A public consultation on the proposals now being developed by an English exam board runs until July.

Helping children to connect with nature is prominent among the campaign’s aims. In recent years, a number of concerns have coalesced around the view that young people do not spend enough time outdoors. Health is one source of anxiety, particularly the rise in obesity and mental distress. Increased reliance on technology for entertainment is another. Evidence shows that the danger from road traffic, and fear of crime, have contributed to reducing children’s freedom, particularly the opportunity to play outside or travel to school unsupervised.

Hand in hand with these worries about children is another set about wildlife. Insects, flowers, mammals such as hedgehogs: a large number of species are known to be in precipitous decline. One of the joys of Springwatch is the attention it lavishes on conservation successes, such as the first white storks to breed in the UK for hundreds of years. But there is no question that our wildlife, along with the rest of the world’s, is seriously under threat. Underpinning nature education is the idea that if the destruction is to be stopped, human beings must learn to care about it. Hence, when the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped words such as “acorn” and “buttercup” a few years ago, in favour of “broadband” and “analogue”, a group of writers protested loudly.

It is more than 40 years since David Attenborough brought the story of evolution to television in Life on Earth. This week he is back, delivering geography lessons as part of the BBC’s Bitesize lockdown schooling programme. The towering achievements of British natural history, above all Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, are rightly celebrated. But with increased disruption of the Earth’s climate systems on its way, even if the worst effects of global heating are avoided, there is an urgent need to strengthen public understanding of the forces of nature, including human civilisation, that are now at work. Just this month, scientists warned that the sixth mass extinction is accelerating, with 500 species of land animals on the brink.

In recent weeks, moves to decolonise the curriculum, making it more reflective of students’ diverse experiences and taking more account of past and present injustices, have been high on the agenda. The predicted impacts of the climate crisis make such efforts even more important. If we hope to avert disaster in some of the world’s poorest countries, among them former British colonies including low-lying Bangladesh, as well as avoid all manner of climate harms in the UK, we need education that faces forwards and outwards, as well as backwards. Teaching children to recognise tree and bird species might feel a long way removed from geopolitical priorities such as sea level rises. But with or without its own GCSE, the long view of life on Earth that is supplied by the study of natural history is desperately needed.

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