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Climate change GCSE launched to teach students how to save the planet

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A new natural history GCSE focusing on how to protect the planet is set to be announced by the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, on Thursday.

The new qualification – set to be available from September 2025 – will focus on topics such as climate change and biodiversity.

Environmentalists have welcomed it as a means of helping teenagers with mental health issues.

Mary Colwell, who led the campaign for the subject, said it will be “very nurturing and life-enhancing” by connecting secondary school students with the natural world.

She also said understanding nature will help students recognise impacts of climate change as they happen.

“But it’s not just about problem solving and tackling climate change,” she said. “I think that the natural world provides people with a lot of solace and inspiration and we are in challenging times, being surrounded by things that nurture us. The study of natural history is very nurturing and life-enhancing.”

The lack of engagement with nature among the youth population is a growing concern for policymakers. Spending time in nature is known to have a positive effect on mental health but research has found that three-quarters of children spend less time outdoors each day than prisoners.

Ms Colwell said the new GCSE “could help young people with mental health issues and I think that was one of the reasons why [former environment secretary] Michael Gove was very keen – he was very supportive of the idea when we went to see him back in 2018 and he kept raising the idea that I can see the connections between this and a mental health crisis in young people.

“There is a connection between connecting with nature and better mental health.”

‘Life-enhancing’ effect of nature will be shown to teenagers (Getty)
‘Life-enhancing’ effect of nature will be shown to teenagers (Getty)

The new GCSE, designed by exam board OCR, would aim to teach students the skills for careers in conservation.

A consultation on the subject found the most popular prospective topics were flora and fauna and the human impact on the world. Respondents also said outdoor study should be an important part of the GCSE.

Jill Duffy, OCR chief executive, said: “This GCSE is a wonderful opportunity for young people everywhere – from urban to rural environments – to study and connect with wildlife and the natural world.

“Deeper engagement with biodiversity and sustainability will equip generations of young people to understand their environment and grapple with critical challenges.

Teen conservationist and wildlife writer Kabir Kaul, 15, said the new subject “will give my generation the knowledge and practical skills they need to value and protect the environment around them”.

Environmental issues are already on the curriculum in geography and science but the government said the new course would “go further” in studying the history and evolution of species and the impact of life on natural environments, as well as how they are changing and evolving.

Students will learn to recognise signs of climate change such as decline of species (PA)
Students will learn to recognise signs of climate change such as decline of species (PA)

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, said she was “delighted” that the new subject had been adopted. She said: “I pay tribute to everyone who’s helped to achieve it - first and foremost Mary Colwell, whose brilliant initiative it was.

“Britain is a nation of nature-lovers, yet we’re also ranked as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. We owe it to our young people to teach them more about the riches of the natural world so they can recognise and appreciate its beauty, understand the scale of the loss we’re living through, and be equipped with the necessary tools to reverse it.”

In his speech on Thursday, the education secretary will also pledge greater support for teaching climate change in all age groups and by 2023 there will be new requirements for further education teachers to build sustainability into their teaching.

He will also confirm that the programme to introduce at least one sustainability lead in every locally maintained nursery, school, college and university will be sped up.

Mr Zahawi said: “We are delivering a better, safer, greener world for future generations and education is one of our key weapons in the fight against climate change.

“The entrepreneurial, can-do spirit of this country makes me confident that we will win this fight.”

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