Biology is the study of life. It ultimately provides us with an understanding of our own bodies and how they work, how life began and how it continues to sustain itself and the variety of interactions that occur between different organisms in the environment. It also enhances our awareness and appreciation of a variety of important issues for general life, including the cellular communication that occurs in organisms and the links with medicine, how we inherit features from our parents, the importance of good health and the spread of disease and immunity.

Biologists learn not just the rapidly increasing knowledge base of life, but the methods by which we can experiment to learn more about organisms and ethical issues surrounding various aspects related to biology. The department aims to teach by combining the content with practical opportunities, thus developing good practical and lateral thinking skills. This involves developing good communication skills as well as the ability to research, analyse and critically evaluate.

Biology is still seen as a core academic subject due to its complexity and detail, as well as its numerical and written skill base. As a Sixth Form subject, it is regarded as essential for entry into medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, physiotherapy, nursing and most aspects of biological science, including biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, zoology, marine biology, genetics, cell biology, ecology – the list is endless!


“Biology – Without this department, I wouldn’t be at Oxford.”

 Tanadet Pipatpolkai (H 2010-’13)


Edexcel GCSE Biology / EDexcel Double GCSE in Combined Science

Pupils at Gresham’s will either complete Edexcel GCSE Biology over a period of 3 years (alongside separate GCSE qualifications in Chemistry and Physics) or they can choose to complete the Edexcel Double GCSE in Combined Science (including Biology, Chemistry and Physics). The separate award covers the same basic topics as the combined science, but contains more detailed content and pupils will learn some material not taught in the Combined Science course.  In Year 9 pupils are all taught the material needed for the stand-alone Biology GCSE and will make a decision at the end of the year whether to continue with this or swap to a Combined Science GCSE. Both courses allow for the development of knowledge and practical skills and are assessed without coursework.  Although the separate award course provides better support for studying A-Level and IB Biology, it is still possible to study these after the Combined Science course if a high standard is achieved in that qualification.

Year 9

Pupils in Year 9 begin the GCSE Biology programme by completing the first two of the required nine units, including core biological concepts which are regularly revisited throughout years 10 and 11. They begin to develop some of the skills that are essential for the GCSE course, including practical skills and the use of specific subject terminology. They will learn about different types of cells and how these cells can obtain materials via different processes as well as studying the importance of enzymes in cellular reactions. In addition, we learn about cell division and stem cells (including the ethical consideration surrounding the use of these cells) and cover the role of the nervous system in organisms. The brain and how the eye works are also taught as part of the first year. These are all key concepts that are essential for the final exam and also help develop key skills and understanding that will be helpful in the remaining two years.

Years 10 and 11

Pupils put the skills learnt from Year 9 to good effect by learning about a variety of different areas of Biology. These include topics involving Genetics, Evolution, Biotechnology, Immunity, Microbiology, Plant Science, Physiology and Ecology. Throughout the course the pupils continue to complete practical work and develop their practical skills in a variety of different contexts, which is also useful for studying Chemistry and Physics. In learning about a variety of topic areas, the students can develop a greater sense of the world around them and be more aware and knowledgeable regarding the huge amount of biological science they are presented with in today’s modern society.

At the  end of the course in Year 11, the pupils complete two exam papers (for the separate Biology GCSE) which are both 1 hour and 45 minutes long and this determines the grade they are awarded. For the Combined course, pupils complete two exams of 1 hour and 10 minutes each in Biology alongside the same number of exams in Chemistry and Physics and all the results are added together to create a double award grade for the Combined Science course. There is no coursework element to GCSE Biology or Combined Science, but pupils must be able to complete a range of practical tasks successfully as part of both courses.

Sixth Form

Biology is offered at A level and both Higher and Standard Level for the IB Diploma. All courses build on previous learning, including a greater study into cells, biochemistry, genetics, evolution, physiology, behaviour and ecology. The content covered is similar for both courses, although there are some minor differences.

OCR A-level Biology

The A-level course comprises of a number of topics, including cellular biology, biochemistry, classification, biodiversity, immunology, physiology, plant biology, microbiology, ecology and evolutionary biology. This breadth of content enables the students to choose to specialise in any area they wish at degree level and complements a variety of other A-level subjects also, including Maths, PE, Psychology, Geography, Chemistry and Physics. Biology is regarded as an academically challenging A-level to complete and therefore is favourably considered by both universities and employers. The A-level is examined by 3 final exam papers completed at the end of Year 13 and there is no coursework component. Practical skills must be demonstrated throughout the course in a variety of practical activities for the pupils to pass the ‘practical endorsement’ aspect of Biology and although this does not contribute to the final grade awarded it is essential that students can pass this element.

IB Biology (HL and SL)

For the IB course, students have the option to cover Biology to standard level or higher level. In standard level Biology, students will cover modules in cellular biology, biochemistry, genetics, ecology, evolution & biodiversity and physiology. Students who opt for higher level will also complete these modules, but in addition will complete units that build on these earlier topics and provide more detail regarding genetic inheritance, the control of gene expression, physiological processes in plants and the human body and also the variety of biochemical reactions in organisms (including reactions involving DNA, respiration and photosynthesis). Students studying for higher and standard level must also complete an additional optional unit from a choice of Ecology, Biotechnology, Neurobiology and further Physiology, and this is voted for by the students. The IB course is assessed via 3 written exam papers (80%) as well as a coursework component (the IA). The IA is a practical investigation designed and carried out by the student and mirrors the sort of format used for research papers at a university level. This contributes 20% of the final mark and is completed at the start of Year 13.

ESS (Environmental Systems and Societies)

ESS is also offered at IB as a standard level subject. This has more of an environmental science focus.

When I have asked pupils the question ‘what will be the greatest challenge that mankind will face in the next 50 years’ many give the reply ‘climate change’.  Young people today are increasingly aware and concerned about the impact that mankind is having upon the planet.

Through studying environmental systems and societies (ESS) pupils will be provided with a coherent perspective of the interrelationships between environmental systems and societies, with an emphasis on sustainability; one that enables them to adopt an informed personal response to the wide range of pressing environmental issues that they will inevitably come to face.

Pupils will be able to study this course successfully with no specific previous knowledge of science or geography. However, as the course aims to foster an international perspective, awareness of local and global environmental concerns and an understanding of the scientific methods, a course that shares these aims would be good preparation.  ESS is an interdisciplinary subject so allows flexibility within the IB programme and prepares students for any degree with ecological content and supports a degree leading to a Biological Science or for those who study Geography.

During the course, students will study eight different topics. An important aspect of the ESS course is hands-on work in the laboratory and/or out in the field.

The course covers the following areas:

  1. Foundations of ESS –  Environmental value systems, sustainability and pollution
  2. Ecosystems and ecology – Species, populations, biomes, zonation and ecosystems
  3. Biodiversity and conservation – Origins, threats and conservation of biodiversity
  4. Water and aquatic food production systems and societies – Access to fresh water, aquatic food production systems and water pollution
  5. Soil systems and terrestrial food production systems and societies – soil, farming systems, soil degradation and conservation
  6. Atmospheric systems and societies – the atmosphere, stratospheric ozone, photochemical smog, and acid deposition
  7. Climate change and energy production – Energy choice, energy security and climate change
  8. Human systems and resource use – Population dynamics, resource use, solid domestic waste and human carrying capacity

The Final assessment consists of one independent and individual practical study.  This can be based upon primary or secondary data, and is internally assessed. There are also two exam papers, a one hour paper of  questions that are based upon unseen source material, and a two hour paper of short data based structured questions and two essays out of a choice of four.


Additional Opportunities

As pupils progress through Biology at the school they are encouraged to attend the Hodgkin Society meetings. Named after Sir Alan Hodgkin (former student and Nobel Prize Winner) the Hodgkin Society is a pupil-centred society, where those involved are encouraged to do presentations of whatever format they wish to enrich their peers’ understanding, interest and knowledge of biologically-related matters. Pupils are consistently encouraged to read material and articles that will enrich their knowledge of the subject and these are what are often shared during the society talks.

The department runs a field course around the North Norfolk Coast for all Sixth Form biologists. This focuses on zonation, succession, biodiversity, habitat management, adaptations and distribution. Habitats include dune land, saltmarsh, rocky shore, heathland and rivers. This enables our sixth form biologists to develop the practical ecology skills needed for their courses, whilst experiencing the beauty and biodiversity of the North Norfolk coastline.

Our top A Level and IB students annually enter the national Biology Olympiad. This is an annual competition run by the Royal Society of Biology, in which schools all over the world compete by answering challenging questions related to the whole breadth of subject areas in Biology. Gresham’s has had a lot of success in this competition in previous years, including students recently who have won Gold awards for finishing in the top 5% of all competitors!

The Biology department at Gresham’s is also part of the AMGEN Biotechnology Experience, in association with the John Innes Centre, Norwich. As part of this the school is loaned a variety of complex biotechnology kit and is able to run practical experiments with students in Years 10-13 on DNA profiling (including extraction of DNA and gel electrophoresis) and PCR (amplifying DNA for gel electrophoresis). These are advanced practical experiments that enhance the pupils’ understanding of genetic technology and it’s importance in society and give pupils an experience of practical genetics that many other schools are unable to offer.