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.