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Choice of routes ahead

John Westaway discusses the main developments in the new GCSE syllabuses to be introduced next year

September 1996 will see the introduction of new GCSE geography syllabuses developed to build on the knowledge, understanding and skills established by the 1995 national curriculum order for geography.

Since the new Orders were published, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) and Awdurdod Cwricwlwm Ac Asesu Cymru (ACAC), the curriculum authority for Wales, have developed new criteria to govern GCSE examinations in a wide range of subjects including geography. The new criteria, which were published in March, have provided the framework within which the GCSE examining groups have been developing their syllabuses.

In terms of aims, assessment objectives and subject content, the new criteria have not required major changes to current GCSE syllabuses. Where there are changes, they reflect the need for syllabuses to build on the national curriculum. In particular, they require syllabuses to demonstrate a balance between physical, human and environmental aspects, and consolidate the geographical enquiry skills developed in key stage 3.

The main changes to syllabuses have been caused by altered coursework weightings and tiering. The weighting allocated to coursework is 20-25 per cent. Although this is the same weighting as the 1993 GCSE criteria for geography (which were to provide the framework for the original national curriculum geography syllabuses), it will represent a change for many schools following earlier syllabuses with a higher coursework weighting.

Like most other subjects, the GCSE geography examinations will involve question papers targeted at two tiers: G-C and D-A*. The two tiers of the exam will assess the same content, but tiering will mean that question papers can be more closely targeted on a narrower range of candidate ability. Lower attaining pupils will no longer face large numbers of questions which they cannot understand, while those aiming for the top grades will not have to spend much of their examining time answering questions that are too easy for them. Teachers will have to make a decision about the appropriate tier for each pupil when entries are submitted to examining groups in the spring term of the year of the exam, by which time they will be very familiar with the work of individual pupils. In cases where pupils progress or regress significantly after this date, it is normally possible to change the tier of entry at a later stage.

The GCSE examining groups are developing a total of 11 full GCSE syllabuses. Proposals were sent to SCAA and ACAC in June, where they were considered by a panel of subject experts nominated by examining groups and subject associations. The examining groups have since undertaken further development work in the light of the comments received from SCAA and ACAC. The syllabuses should be approved by the end of the year; schools should receive them in January, on the schedule announced in the final Dearing report.

In addition, three examining groups - MEG, NEAB and SEG - are planning to offer GCSE (Short Course) syllabuses in geography. All should be available to schools early in 1996. Short courses, which are of GCSE standard, are designed to occupy half the study time of a full GCSE. They may be offered either as one-year courses, occupying a full GCSE timetable slot, or as two-year courses, occupying half of a GCSE timetable slot - perhaps alongside a short course in another subject. Before embarking on a GCSE (Short Course) as a one-year course in September 1996, schools should check with the appropriate examining group to confirm that it is planning to offer the GCSE geography (Short Course) exam in 1997.

Four examining groups - MEG, NEAB, SEG and WJEC - are also each developing a humanities syllabus. They too should be approved by the end of the year and in schools early in 1996. The four syllabuses demonstrate a range of approaches; some integrate the contributory disciplines while others retain their separate identity. All have a coursework weighting of 20-25 per cent and will be examined by a single tier exam.

Many schools will wish to adopt the syllabus that is closest to the one which they currently follow. However, others may wish to take the opportunity to evaluate the new syllabuses with a view to adopting a different one in September 1996. As now, the new syllabuses have different content emphases and demonstrate a variety of approaches. Some focus on issues, others more on themes or places.

In terms of assessment, there is a variety of styles of terminal examinations (ranging from multiple choice papers to decision-making or problem-solving papers) and coursework. All schools should be able to find a syllabus that meets their needs and those of their pupils.

John Westaway is professional officer for geography at SCAA

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