Can geography field trips recover from Covid?

Covid halted geography fieldwork, but now schools must focus again on this vital element of education, says Steve Brace

Steve Brace

GCSEs and A levels 2022: Why geography teachers must fight for field trips after the Covid disruption in schools

Across the land, geography teachers are dusting off their clipboards and making plans for their return to the field.

Educational day visits are now allowed again and the Department for Education has indicated that, if things progress well, UK-based residential visits may start taking place from 17 May.

Teachers and fieldwork providers deserve credit for the creative ways in which they have kept students connected with the subject through lockdown: from digital tours of glaciated landscapes or tropical forests, to the Field Studies Council’s “fieldwork live” broadcasts, which connected 250,000 pupils with the wonders of soils, weather and ecosystems.

We also saw A-level students scouring Google Street View to collect information on how, for example, LGBT+ perspectives might be reflected in a town’s urban fabric or using information from live tweeting river gauges to collect data on their local rivers. But the return to the real-life field is still welcome news. 

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There will still be challenges for teachers planning fieldwork over the coming months, however. 

The “catch-up” narrative may skew focus away from “non-core” activities, despite fieldwork being a requirement in the geography national curriculum and its GCSE and A-level courses.

Reviving geography field trips after Covid

The focus on the learning gap may also overlook longstanding evidence that it is disadvantaged pupils who already have the fewest opportunities to participate in residential activities

Some parents may have health concerns about work beyond the school gates. And it will still be some time before a Year 11 geography student can confidently approach a member of the public on the high street to ask them questions about their shopping habits.  

There’s also the issue of limited availability now, with field centres having been badly hit by lockdown. Save Outdoor Education reported in March 2021 that 30 centres have permanently shut, a further 20 were under threat and 6,000 outdoor education posts had been made redundant.

But the wider benefits of connecting students with the outdoors are undeniable, connecting pupils with wider environmental issues on global and local scales. 

And it is always individuals, not an undifferentiated class of pupils, who experience fieldwork. A reminder of this is provided by geographer Kit Rackley, who recently shared their candid experience of residential fieldwork as a trans child. 

Covid has both led to many losses and increased our appreciation of the things we often take for granted. In putting fieldwork back on to every school’s map towards their future, the geographical community should not just be content with a simple like-for-like replacement.

We should seek improved learning outcomes, promote more environmentally sustainable activities, provide more numerous experiences, be they near or afar, and – not least – ensure that fieldwork is a positive experience for all young people.  

Steve Brace is head of education and outdoor learning at the Royal Geographical Society 

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