New climate change GCSE will teach students how to protect the planet

Teenage boy studying climate change sitting outside. (Getty Images)
Would you have liked the option to study climate change more in depth at school? (Getty Images) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A new GCSE focused on climate change has been launched that will help give students a "deeper knowledge" of the natural world and teach them how to "conserve the planet".

The natural history qualification was officially announced by the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi on Thursday and will be available in schools by September 2025.

As the next generation of leaders, pupils will also develop skills for future careers in the natural world, such as "description, recording and analysis, through sustained and structured field study", the Department for Education (DfE) outlined.

Pupils sitting a GCSE English exam at Colchester County High School for Girls, Colchester, Essex.   (Photo by Chris Radburn - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
We might have to rethink what a 'climate change exam' might look like. (PA Images via Getty Images) (Chris Radburn - PA Images via Getty Images)

"It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that young people are already very committed to a more sustainable planet," said Zahawi.

"We should be proud of this, and I want to do everything I can to encourage this passion so they can be agents of change in protecting our planet.

"The new natural history GCSE will offer young people a chance to develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of this amazing planet, its environment and how to conserve it."

This includes learning about organisms and environments, and environmental and sustainability issues.

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Scientist measuring water depth to install water level data loggers in a coastal wetland  to understand inundation period and impact on ecosystem services.
Field study will be a big part of the new GCSE. (Getty Images) (Tenedos via Getty Images)

The qualification is one of the first new GCSEs to be launched since the qualifications were reformed in 2017, echoing young people's interest in tackling the climate crisis.

While pupils already learn about environmental issues through the study of urbanisation in geography and habitats and ecosystems in science, the government reportedly said the new course would "go further" in teaching them about the history and evolution of species and the impact of life on natural environments, and how they are evolving.

"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," added Zahawi. "The entrepreneurial, can-do spirit of this country makes me confident that we will win this fight."

While the broad outline of the course has been planned, the government will work closely with independent experts and a range of stakeholder organisations, exam boards including Cambridge OCR and Ofqual to develop the detailed content for the GCSE.

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Coral mortality--dead coral overgrown with algae on the Great Barrier Reef in Australi following a mass bleaching event.
Students will learn about the impact of life on natural environments. (Getty Images) (Brett Monroe Garner via Getty Images)

This move forms part of the government's plans detailing "how the UK education sector is to become a world leader in climate change by 2030", as it has also launched its wider flagship Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy.

The DfE previously said this wider strategy will aim to help "young people develop excellent knowledge of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and practical opportunities to improve biodiversity and climate resilience".

The government is also due to confirm its plans to accelerate the rollout of carbon literacy training to support at least one sustainability lead in every locally maintained nursery, school, college and university.

Meanwhile, the education secretary will pledge greater support for teaching climate change at all levels and by 2023 there will be "new requirements for further education teachers to build sustainability into their teaching".

The build-up to the climate-science focused GCSE launch has so far received a mixed reaction on social media.

Many have praised the move, with one Twitter user writing, "I’m pleased to see growing focus on education around #ClimateChange for young people. Let’s continue to look for ways to speed and scale up the national #GreenTransition by making this kind of information accessible for individuals and communities."

However, others have compared teaching to "getting greenwashed", with an urgent need for more government action.

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Inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and organised by Youth Strike 4 Climate, British eco-aware school and college-age pupils protest about Climate Change outside Downing Street in Whitehall during their walkout from classes, on 15th February 2019, in Westminster, London England. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images Images)
Young climate crisis activists are already leading the way. (In Pictures via Getty Images Images) (Richard Baker via Getty Images)

With young people the generation of the future, climate change is already on many of their minds.

A recent study of five to 11-year-olds on the future of the planet, climate change and sustainability, as part of BT's A Bright Future: Looking Ahead with the Next Generation report, unearthed the extent of this anxiety.

Half of all youngsters say climate change (49%) and animal extinction (50%) are major concerns for the future, while some children (29%) are worried about not being able to live on earth anymore.

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Children are twice as likely to be concerned about climate change as they get older, with a third (29%) of 11-year-olds saying their biggest concern is slowing down climate change, in comparison to 16% of five-year-olds.

Girls are also more likely to be concerned about climate change than boys, with 53% vs 47% respectively.

However, there is still hope for the future, with more than four out of five (86%) saying they believe technology will improve it, including more than a third (33%) who think it will help us find new ways of doing things to make the world a better place.

Four in 10 (40%) are also excited about being able to make things without plastic in the future, while 65% believe there will be less pollution (43% say a little less, 22% a lot less).